Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Gnome in Norfolk

Unfortunately this year in particular I my birding is very constrained due to work commitments. Don't get me wrong, I'm very grateful to have work in the current climate and I know that for many people the lack of work must be a great source of worry and stress. However, it does rather limit my birding opportunities. This means that despite what has turned into a classic autumn for birding, I've been largely reduced to watching it all from the sidelines. I could only look on in envy as the Black Audi Birder went from one end of the country to the other multiple times mopping up all sorts of mega rarities in the matter of a couple of weeks.  Instead for me during the week I nip out once or twice a day to my local patch of Port Meadow. This has fortunately reflooded a month earlier than usual so I live in hope of a rare wader turning up though none has so far. At weekends, as well as family stuff, I will sometimes venture somewhere a bit further afield.

In general I find that the longer I go without any decent birding trips the more there is of a build-up of a desire to get out. Much like the build-up of other unfulfilled urges over time, the longer I go without my birding fix, the more I yearn to have it. In the end this often leads to me going on a birding trip that perhaps normally I wouldn't do but sometimes the urge just proves too much. For me this tipping point came this last weekend. I was very much feeling the lack of any decent bird trips. I had originally told my VLW that I'd like to take the weekend off for birding but then something came up on the Sunday that meant this wasn't going to be possible. So instead on Saturday morning I mooched around Port Meadow, finding very little and watching the RBA alerts about a newly discovered Rufous Bush Chat in Norfolk despondently. The first twitchable one of this species for several decades meant that the birding world was very much going bonkers over this find but I could only watch from afar. I returned home to news that the Sunday commitment had been cancelled. That changed everything and such was the build-up of my birding "needs" that I decided spontaneously to head off to Norfolk to see this great Mega myself.. A spontaneous "on the first day" twitch is something that I almost never do - what was I thinking? Much to the consternation of my VLW I hurriedly put together my stuff, sent off a booking request to a convenient AirBnB in north Norfolk, pointed the SatNav for Stiffkey and hit the road at around 12:30 pm.

I knew the route well enough and en route there were regular "still present" messages for a while though about half way there they mysteriously dried up. During a stop at a traffic light I hurriedly checked to discover that the bird was in fact still there but had now been narrowed down to subspecies. As it was now being reported as Eastern Rufous Bush Chat then it was no longer hitting my Rufous Bush Chat filter alert. Reassured I sped on, finally arriving at the King's Lynn bypass and taking the A148 towards Fakenham before getting frustratingly stuck behind a tractor for what seemed like an eternity. At this point I'd got back an "already booked" message from my prospective AirBnB so I rang my daughter on the hands-free and asked her to book me somewhere else. She duly found me a nice place near Fakenham and I asked her to book it for me. However, a few minutes later I got a call from the owner saying that due to a glitch in the matrix he'd just booked it out to someone else. There then followed a couple more calls from him and AirBnB about doing the cancellation for this and then I had to call my daughter back to get her to find me another place which she did: a cheap and cheerful place on the outskirts of King's Lynn itself. It was all finally sorted just as I was nearing my destination. I was directed off the A148 and navigated through the back roads up to the coast road and finally at around 3:45pm I was at Stiffkey turning down Green Way where I was greeted by the expected sea of cars the length of the road. As it was rather late now there were a number of people coming back and I managed to find a spot a little way down the road. The atmosphere of the returning birders seemed very relaxed so I got the impression that this was one of those "turn up and the bird will be there on view" twitches. Therefore, in a state of relative calm I tooled up and headed down the road to the saltmarsh where in the distance I could see the throng of twitchers. It was extremely muddy on the marsh - I later learnt that at high tide the marsh is partially submerged and the mass of birders feet tramping about the place can't have helped. It took getting on for 10 minutes to squelch my way to the twitch site where I was greeted with a choice of whether to go over a little wooded bridge over a creek or to view from the right-hand side on this side of the creek. In the end I chose the right-hand side where I later found that the views were worse but there were fewer people. I tentatively asked someone where to look and was directed to a sort of "hole" in the sueda on the opposite side of the creek. At "7 o'clock" to this was a sort of flat platform of twigs and there sunning itself was the bird in question. I hurriedly shot off some video before it hopped out of site. Mission accomplished - I could relax!

Fortunately for everyone the bird was located on the far side of a creek so was safe from flushing from over-enthusiastic photographers. Instead we were all constrained to view from a sensible distance and the bird seemed unconcerned about our presence. I subsequently have read various reports on how the bird wasn't looking that perky earlier on in the day but to me it seemed healthy enough - I guess that it must have had a chance to dry out and feed up a little. I'd also learnt that it was first found at the start of the day right back at the car park when the saltmarsh itself was still flooded by the high tide but it then relocated on the falling tide to a relatively small patch of sueda with it's creek "moat" to protect it from the marauding hoards of twitchers.The bird was appearing fairly regularly though it was somewhat skulking and after my initial video success I altogether failed to get any more footage or a photograph. Still it was very pleasant to stand there in the wonderfully remote saltmarsh scenery waiting for the bird to appear again in the late afternoon sunshine. A Lap Bunt trilled as it flew overhead. Various flocks of Brent Geese came and went, calling loudly as they did so and a few Redshank and Little Egrets were knocking about.

Fellow twitchers waiting for the bird to reappear

After a while the bird became more secretive and sightings becamse fewer with longer gaps in between. It was getting late and no doubt it was tired from its exhausting journey so was probably going to go to roost early. I found myself standing next to Penny Clark (she of the Hot Birding and Life blog) and we chatted for a while. On the other side of the bank I spotted MMcK from Cornwall though there was no one else I recognised in the crowd - I guess that the hard core twitchers from Oxon would have already been and gone by this time. A Hen Harrier flew over and headed inland - the first of this species I'd seen in quite a few years. All in all it was very pleasant and I enjoyed the large skies and emptiness of the scenery. I can see how this kind of place can get under your skin.

Stiffkey Saltmarsh in the evening - you can just see the remaining twitchers in the distance

Looking west towards Wells

Eventually I decided it was time to leave and I wandered in a contented manner back along the muddy path in the evening sunlight. Back at the Gnome-mobile I de-tooled, had a very welcome celebratory cup of tea from the flask as well as a snack before firing her up and heading towards King's Lynn. I stopped off at a supermarket for some provisions and to top up the fuel before heading on to the BnB. This turned up to be basic but clean and quiet and after a long and exciting day I spent the evening unwinding before going to sleep fairly early where my dreams were filled with mud, saltmarshes and the sound of calling birds.

Having slept ok-ish, I was breakfasted and out the door a little after 7 am the next morning. My plan was first to head to Holme-next-the-Sea to see if I could catch up with one of four (!!) Red-flanked Bluetails that were persent there the previous day. I'd previously seen this species only once before with the long-staying bird in deepest Gloucestershire in 2014 but as that was a good few years ago now, it would be good to reacquaint myself with this stunning species.

I parked up at the village car park to find a number of other birders already there and searching the bushes around the grassy area that apparently was known as the village green. Having tooled up I spoke to someone who looked like he knew what was what who informed me that one of the birds was to be seen at the back of the green, another was to be found along the other side of the row of firs that bordered the green and the other two were on the golf course in amongst the Hawthorns somewhere. I initially decided to try for the one at the back of the green and duly joined the modest line of fellow birders all concentrating on this section. While we waited a few Pink-feet flew over calling loudly, always a loverly sound!

Norfolk Pink-feet

After a while of nothing happening I decided to have a wander about to see what else was about. Someone had already reported one of the other birds somewhere else so I thought I'd try my luck with one of the others. There only seemed to be a few birders working the other side of the firs so I headed off onto the scrubby area next to the golf course. I eventually came across some fellow birders who'd seen one fly across a gap in the Hawthorn a short while ago but whilst I was talking to them a couple of lady birders nearby motioned that they'd just seen one in flight so I headed over there instead. Predictably it had disappeared into the scrub and after a little while the two finders headed on and I chose to follow them a little way, partially just to get a sense of the lie of the land. I wandered along the path for a few minutes where I came upon a few birders staring intently at some bushes. "What have you got?" I enquired excitedly only for them to reply "it's just a Dunnock". Not the answer I was looking for and I decided to head back to where the Bluetail had last been seen. There I found out that I'd missed a reasonable showing and decided to stay put and stick it out in this location.

Waiting for the Bluetail to show

It was very birdy where I was. There were loads of thrushes flying about, mostly Fieldfares and quite regularly a Brambling or two would fly over making its wheezy call. More skeins of Pink-feet would regularly go by and various finches including some Redpolls would zip past at regular intervals. If only Oxon were this bird filled! After about three quarters of an hour of waiting the Bluetail briefly popped out onto a branch in a rather dark area under some Hawthorns before being promptly chased off by a Robin - a regular occurrence here apparently. Shortly after that it flew out and into a nearby tree where it gave partially obscured views for several minutes until once again a Robin saw it off. So no photographic opportunities but it was great to be able to reacquant myself with this blue-tailed gem and I decided that it was time to move on.

I'd just got back to the car when news came up of a Pallas's Warbler nearby at Thornham Harbout "in some bushes by the car park". Whilst this seemed like a rather unlikely location for a Pallas's it was on my list of places to visit today anyway in order to try and see some Twite so I made the short hop to Thornham and parked up at the first car park. There I met another couple of birders who were equally baffled by the RBA news. I decided to walk towards the further car park by the sluice gate and when I got there I could see a few birders standing around a modest clump of sueda. Surely this couldn't be it, could it? It turned out it was! Creeping around in this tiny area of cover was one of these stunning warblers. It was constantly on the move and you could track it by who around the bush was staring intently through their bins at the time or trying to take photos. After initially trying to follow the bird I eventually decided to stay put and let it come to me where I was eventually rewarded with some superb point-blank views though I managed to fluff the best photographic opportunity. I loved watching this stripy gem as it crept about in the sueda - it was one of the highlights of my whole weekend.





The Pallas's Warbler

Having eventually had my fill I decided to wander along the embankment a little to see if I could find any Twite. I soon heard some calling only to find it was someone trying to lure them using playback. There wasn't much along the track apart from a large flock of Blackwits on the flooded field and a Grey Plover in flight. I eventually headed back to the car park where I found someone taking photos of a Common Redstart standing on a post.

Common Redstart

Someone told me that the Twite had been hanging out nearby on the same posts so I decided to wait around about a bit longer. I met up with PCl and MS from Cornwall, who'd driven down overnight and having seen the star attraction at Stiffkey already were now enjoying the Pallas's as it crept about. They too were interested in the Twite and told me about a Great Grey Shrike at Warham. This species of Shrike is actually probably one of the rarest in Cornwall so it had been a top priority for them though as it's pretty much annual in Oxon I was less interested. After more wandering I heard a Twite calling and found a pair on the same rotting wooden posts. I put PCl on it and we took photos as they posed beautifully for us. I really love the understated beauty of Twite - for some reason they're one of my favourite birds.



A random Curlew

I now felt that I'd "done" Thornham and it was time to move on. The final item on my itinery for today was a return visit to Stiffkey to get second helpings of the Rufous Bush Chat. It took a surprisingly long half an hour to get from Thornham over to Stiffkey but eventually I was pulling up in Green Way again and heading across the muddy saltmarsh back to the same location as yesterday. This time I chose to go over the bridge which was the right thing to do as the bird decided to spend most of its time feeding in the area behind the main sueda clump which would have been impossible to see from the other viewpoint. 

The birds was on show regularly though as it was keeping low and moving constantly it was almost impossible to photograph. In the end I gave up and just enjoyed watching the star attraction and soaking up the atmosphere of the location. A flock of six circling Red Kites passed directly overhead.
Three of the six Red Kites

As time was marching on and I didn't want to be back too late, eventually I had to tear myself away and head back to the car where I had some much-needed lunch and tea from the thermos. Then it was time to fire up the Quattro and head off for the long slog home. I arrived back at Casa Gnome at around 5pm, tired but happy from my Norfolk birding adventure.





Thursday, 10 September 2020

Durham Run: Lammergeier & Red-backed Shrike

During the summer we've had our eldest daughter staying with us. As she's now doing a PhD in Durham she doesn't normally come home at the end of term any more but the repetitiveness of working from her student home every day because of the lockdown was starting to get to her so she decided to come home for a while. It's been great having her back for an extended period of time but come the start of September she was wanting to head back. She asked whether I would be able to give her a lift, otherwise she'd take the train back up. Now, I'd rather been missing my regular trips up to the North East so said that I would be happy to take her back. Of course as the time drew near I was keeping a keen eye on the birds in the area but as the winds had switched to westerlies all the hot birding action on the east coast had rather dried up. So it was that I settled on the long-staying Derbyshire Lammergeier as a suitable target and planned accordingly. I did my usual pre trip research, learning about where it was usually seen, which turned out to be the valley north of Crowden just north of Torside Reservoir with Black Tor rocks being its preferred location and the best way to observe it being from the Pennine Way.

The usual Lammergeier location was near Black Tor rocks north of Crowden,
observed from the Pennine Way...

We set off from Oxford at around 9 a.m. and with an uneventful run arrived in Durham at around 1pm. I took some time to have lunch, a cup of tea and to rest a little in my daughter's house before saying goodbye and starting to head back down the M1 towards Derbyshire. Rather worryingly, there had been no news on the bird at all so far that day but just as I was leaving news came through of its continued presence. However, rather than it being in it's usual valley it seemed to be somewhere else this time. A couple of hours later just as I was getting near to my destination another report giving more details came through: it seemed to be hanging out over Pikenaze Moor north east of Woodhead Reservoir. I duly adjusted my SatNav to head for Woodhead instead of Crowden. Just as I was about to arrive another update came through that the bird was now on Dowstone Rocks which were south of Woodhead on the other side of the reservoir (between the two Cloughs on the map below) and that it could be viewed from the continuation of the Pennine Way near Woodhead Reservoir

Today it seemed to be further east at Pikenaze Moor, east of Woodhead

I arrived at Woodhead to find no one else around at all and parked up out of the way somewhere. A quick scan across the reservoir of Dowstone rocks was fruitless though I had no idea of scale and could easily be missing it. With nothing else to do I got my gear together and started to walk up the Pennine Way a little, stopping periodically to rescan the rocks (in case I was getting a better angle) and to look around in general. There were a few Buzzards about the place and a pair of Mistle Thrush but little else of note. Due to my on-going illness (see my previous post) I had to take it rather slowly going up the hill but after about half an hour I came to the conclusion that I wasn't really getting anyway and turned around to head back to the car. Once there I started to head up the track towards Pikenaze Farm mainly just in order to get an idea of what was around the corner. There I was able to look across to the A6024 where I saw what were clearly three birders' cars all parked up in a layby. This struck a chord - I remembered in previous weeks RBA posting instructions to view the Lammergeier from a layby near the end of a road - this must be it! As the birders seemed to be viewing something I hurried back to the car to head around there before they all left - they did seem to be in the process of packing up from what I could tell. Just at that point news came through on RBA of the bird still being present on Dowstone Rocks (how had I missed it?) viewable from the layby I'd just seen. I sped around there as fast as I could but in the intervening three minutes two of the cars had left though fortunately one still remained as I screeched to a halt in the layby. The birder there was just packing up but he kindly set my scope up to view the bird - and relax! There it was, a distant brown blob on the rock face, job done! No wonder I had missed it: it was pretty small up against the huge rock slabs and the colouring made it very much blend in with the background. I took some video for the record.

My helpful companion soon left but I stayed behind. I'd booked an AirBnB nearby for that evening  and was in no hurry to go anywhere so I took my time savouring my success and admiring the Lammergeier, albeit rather distantly. A couple of other birders soon turned up. They'd been up by Black Tor all day where there is no phone signal and had only picked up on the news when they'd come down the valley. Thankfully for them I was able to put them on the bird - I wouldn't have fancied their chances of spottting it otherwise. A local farmer's daughter also arrived wanting to see the bird so I let her view it through my scope. I chatted a while with my fellow birders: one was orignally from Bristol but now lived fairly locally. The other recognised me from my blog: it turned out he knew fellow Oxon blogger the Black Audi Birder from past Shetland visits.

The dark and moody hills of the Peak District at dusk

Eventually they left and I too decided to leave. I headed up the road over the top of Heyden Moor (very picturesque) and down into Holmfirth where I was soon ensconced in my comfortable AirBnB room for the evening. Having already bagged the bird meant that I could relax for the evening without having to fret about trying to see it the next day and after a picnic supper in my room I was soon asleep.

The next morning I decided to start off by revisting the Lammergeier. If nothing else I wanted to see it in flight, which I imagined would be rather impressive so wanted to get there before it left the roost. Accordingly I was on the road shortly after 7:30 though in the gloomy conditions I didn't think the bird was going to go anywhere in a particular hurry. On the hill top I spotted a Red Grouse wandering across the road (a welcome year tick) and a short while later I was pulling into the layby again where there were already three cars. They were peering across the valley at the rock face trying to see the bird but conditions were so gloomy that they stood no chance of finding it. Thankfully, having carefully memorised where it was I was able to find it for them though it was so misty that even with that knowledge it was hard to see it at times.

They all managed to see it so with my good deed for the day already done I headed back to my layby by Woodhead which I reckoned was about half the distance of the A6024 layby from the bird. There I met one other birder who, rather optimistically, was set up with his camera. He's found the bird on the rock face himself and was waiting for it to fly. As it was rather windy and showery, I parked up so that I could view the rockface from within the comfort of my car. The bird didn't seem to be in any hurry and I settle down to wait for it to do something. After about half an hour of watching suddenly it took off. I jumped out of the car and yelled at the other birder who'd managed to miss this departure. I scanned the skyline and managed to pick it out over the ridge on the opposite side where it was soaring. With a couple of Buzzards nearby for size comparision it was an impressive sight! We watched it as it drifted across the reservoir and out of sight a little to the east of us over Pikenaze Moor. I was so pleased to have seen it flying and whilst I'd not had really close up views, I still felt like I'd now got a good sense of the bird. I duly reported its change of location on RBA and then decided to get on with the rest of my plans.

The most obvious target en route to home was the long-staying and confiding Red-backed Shrike at Sutton Park in Sutton Coldfield. Indeed several other county bloggers have already payed homage to this handsome bird. Thinking back, I couldn't recall having seen an adult male before and as Shrikes are generally the twitcher's friend, being usually very predictable and easy to connect with, it seems like an obvious target. I therefore set the Sat Nav accordingly and whiled away the two hours the journey took listening to Radio 4. 

I arrived and parked up in what turned out to be a very busy car park. Fortunately a returning  birder was able to point out which direction to go and indeed I could just see the distant group of twitchers. I duly set  off and arrived to find about ten fellow admirers all standing around a crab apple tree where the bird was immediately visible, low down in one of the bottom branches. It was feeding by spying out small prey items from this tree, swooping down for them and then back into the tree to devour them. Whenever it was in a position where it wasn't obscured everyone would pap away like crazy. It was indeed a very smart bird though in the overcast conditions the light made for less than ideal photographic conditions.

The Red-backed Shrike in its original tree

I too joined in the papping frenzy though I did notice that my fellow admirers were rather overzealous and would keep pushing forward to what I felt were ridiculously close distances. The bird seemes a bit put out by this and eventually moved location a short distance to a bunch of brambles in front of some gorse. When this happened one lady (a bit more of an RSPB'er rather than a photo birder) moved right up to the tree itself so as to be closer to its new location, so now it couldn't get back to its tree. So instead it flew higher up to a different tree and the phalanx of photographers duly gathered around. It was all getting rather distasteful to my mind and I decided that I wasn't really enjoying this bird harassment and headed back to the car.

The bird forced to its new location

Back at the car I spent some time drinking tea, eating some cake that I'd brought with me and contemplating life in general. Then it was time to fire up the Quattro and head off on the hour and a half last leg of the journey. I arrived back at Casa Gnome early afternoon for a late lunch and a chance to catch up with the rest of the family. It had been another successful Durham run.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Cornwall in August

This is another compilation of the posts on my sister blog Pendeen Birding.

Coming Down
It was time to come back down to Cornwall for our summer holiday. This year, because of the exceptional conditions and with so much uncertainty regarding overseas travel we decided just to go to Cornwall and to take two weeks ourselves.

The big news locally was the horrible pop-up camp site that had appeared right  by the Coastguard cottages at Pendeen. So many of the village locals are up in arms about it as of course  are we and all our neighbours. However due to the exceptional covid situation the Council are encouraging camping in the area and there seems to be no chance of stopping it this year. Instead people are trying to make sure that it doesn't happen again next year. Anyway, we did our best to ignore it and to be honest, given the unstettled weather there weren't that many people there most of the time so it wasn't too bad for most of our stay. Let's hope that this is a one-off event.

On a personal level, myself, my wife and eldest daughter are still recovering from a long-term albeit rather low level virus that had been plaguing us for some months now. In discussion with two different doctors, they both said that our symptoms sounded exactly like "post Covid" symptoms  where, after getting Covid itself, some people seem to have a very long recovery time. Indeed my wife did play tennis with someone who definitely came down with Covid a few days later and I'd been commuting to work in London so it's very likely that we both got it. Thankfully in both cases our symptoms were so mild that we didn't even know we had it. However the low level "post viral" symptoms that come and go have been dragging on for months now and we both are finding that if we over do it then we start to feel under the weather again. Whilst we've been lucky to have been so lightly affected in the first place, the length of time for the recovery is becoming very frustrating.

Anyway, that's the backdrop to our trip down to Cornwall. Despite starting off doing day by day postings, I soon got fed up doing that and since coming home I've amalgamated my news into a few summary posts instead.

An Orange Swift that came to the "moth light"

Drift Reservoir

With the rest of the family choosing to have a lie-in on our first day in the cottage I decided to head off reasonably early to see if I could see the Drift Spotted Sandpiper - the one rare bird that was around on the Penwith peninsula at the moment. I was about half way from Pendeen to Drift when the heavens opened so I decided to head first to Sainsbury's to do a spot of shopping. This worked out quite nicely and I'd just finished as it started to ease. I duly arrived at the reservoir car park, tooled up and headed off. I soon realised that I'd made a mistake in not wearing my waterproof trousers: whilst it was no longer raining, there was a lot of vegetation to walk through and my trousers were soon soaking. I worked my way around the west shore, hoping that I would strike lucky at the first corner by the boardwalk which certainly used to be it's favourite corner but sadly it was empty. Having failed here I was pinning my hopes on finding it in the north west arm past the hide where waders usually like to hang out. Here I found three Green Sandpipers, a Wood Sand, 2 Common Sand, a Greenshank, a Snipe as well as a few ducks, a Little Egret and a couple of Grey Herons but sadly not the bird I was looking for. Eventually I had to give up and head back home to dry out.

After lunch, we decided to do something that we'd been meaning to do for years, namely climb the hill behind Pendeen itself. It didn't take too long but once we'd left the village the scenery changed and there was a wonderful tapestry of heather and gorse which looked stunning in the afternoon sunshine. 

Heather & Gorse

The view at the top of the hill was definitely worth it and we all wished that we'd done it years ago. After a while we headed down to the  churchyard where after a wander around the churchyard we sat down with our flask of tea and our snacks. We'd just finished when news came through on RBA of the Spotted Sandpiper still present at Drift. As we about to head home anyway I quickly dropped the others off at the cottage and headed off to Drift with my younger daughter along for the ride.

I arrived about the same time as two other birders who were also keen to catch up with the Spotted Sand. The news had said that it was along the east shore 100 yards from the dam wall. This was pretty precise information but despite the three off us searching we couldn't see it. With nothing else to do the three of us worked our way back along the west shore just as I'd done in the morning. Sadly the outcome was the same as in the morning with no sign of the target bird though the number of Wood Sandpipers had now grown to three. One of the party decided to head on whereas myself and the third person both had to head back due to limited time. My daughter and I lingered a bit as the other person yomped on ahead. Back near the dam I thought I'd just take one last look on the far shore just in case. "Was that movement I saw in my bins?" I pondered. I got my scope out again and checked and wouldn't you know it, there was the bird! Had it been there all along but skulking on the shoreline? Certainly as it worked its way in amongst the stone blocks near the dam it was easy enough to lose sight of it. I whipped out my digiscoping gear and took a bit of video footage.

Some video footage of the Spotted Sandpiper on the far side of the reservoir

Having snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and with a shiny new personal Cornish tick now in the bag, it was with a feeling of achievement that we headed back to the car and drove back to the cottage for dinner.


I have not been so diligent in my surveying of Pendeen each morning as I have in the past. The truth is that it's a little too early in August and to be honest I've just not been feeling it. Still in passing I've managed to see a few things. The highlight was a lovely female Common Hawker that settled right next to me and allowed some photography at point blank range. This species is pretty rare on the Penwith peninsula and in all my years of coming down it's only the second time that I've seen it. In discussion with local resident JS he says that he's only seen three during his time here.

Female Common Hawker

A few Pied Flycatchers were being reported passing through the county and one day I managed to find one in the Old Count House garden. The trouble is that there is so much cover there that it's very hard to see anything and after about 30 seconds it had disappeared.

Pied Flycatcher

Small Copper

On my regular strolls down to the lighthouse I'd often spot a Wheatear in the fields or posing on a wall.


 Apart from that it was the usual species doing their usual thing. The two Ravens were still around and a pair of Chough have taken up residence in the area.


One of our favourite family past times when then weather is stormy is to head down to Marazion to sit on the sea front, sipping coffee from a flask and watching the waves crash on the shore. One time we also walked from there to Little London to have our tea and look for sea glass on the beach. There's not been anything particularly interesting on the shore but it's always fun to rummage through the waders and gulls in the hope of finding something interesting.

I always enjoy picking out the Med Gulls from the flock

Ringed Plover


Med Gull in amongst the Black-headeds

Sea-watching: Part I
The last three days we've had proper stormy weather and raging southerly winds. As a birder of course this should be music to my ears in August but as I mentioned previously I've been feeling rather unwell. All this meant that I didn't feel up to getting up at the crack of dawn in order to spend all day on a windswept headland. In any event, I've never been a great fan of Porthgwarra - the light and the lack of shelter and the fact that I can't hear what people are calling out half the time all makes for a rather unenjoyable experience. Also, I'm on a family rather than birding holiday and to take off for the whole day with the car would be very much frowned upon. So instead, for the last three days I've gone down to Pendeen lighthouse at whatever time I've happened to wake up to try my luck there instead. Of course the wind direction was completely wrong for Pendeen and indeed the first two days were completely useless and I was reduced to picking out the few Mediterranean Gulls that were passing the Watch. 

On the third day, I was down at the Watch at 9 am to find one other person there. He'd been down at PG earlier but it had been such rubbish that he'd decided to try Pendeen instead. He was in two minds about whether to have a go but after seeing all the benefits of the shelter and the great light he was persuaded. He and I enjoyed a nice chat whilst we tried to winkle out some birds of interested and we even managed a couple of Sooties for our troubles. A third PG refugee turned up who turned out to be a birder all the way down from Aviemore in Scotland. He was younger and frankly more sharp-eyed than either myself or my original companion and things started to pick up with his arrival. We added quite a few more Sooties and a couple of Stormies to the tally and even an Ocean Sun Fish. The pick of morning though was an adult summer plumage Sabine's Gull that he managed to pick out well past the left hand rock. Somehow I too managed to get on it with my bins before it passed the lighthouse wall of oblivion though sadly my original companion never managed to connect.

As time passed and word seemed to spread of the comparative better pickings on offer at Pendeen more people arrived from PG and the session turned from our enjoyable trio who were able to chat amongst ourselves, instead to a large scale watch with more than a dozen hardcore sea-watchers. I tend to enjoy such sessions less, finding them rather intimidating for calling stuff out and I was getting tired anyway so called it a day at that point. Still I couldn't complain: Sabine's Gull was a personal Cornish tick.


Sea-watching: Part II
I woke before the rest of the family to find the wind was as forecast, namely a moderate south-westerly averaging about 17 mph according to the BBC weather app. So, OK but not exactly classic sea-watching weather. Certainly in theory this should be another Porthgwarra day and as I got tooled up and wandered down to the lighthouse for a brief spell of sea-watching I expected to find myself pretty much on my own. I turned the corner to find thirty or so birders occupying the area below the lighthouse. Indeed there were so many people that I couldn't see anywhere to sit down and so had to retrace my steps back to the cottage to get my chair to sit on - I don't normally bother with it as I can sit on the concrete ledge. It seems that the recent poor PG performance had been enough to relegate it to below Pendeen for a south westerly.

As I've said previously, I'm not a great fan of the large watch but I managed to find a spot tucked right in the corner out of the wind and I was reasonably close to a couple of people who were helpful in passing on calls and all in all it was actually quite enjoyable. Looking around I recognised quite a few of the faces including my Aviemore companion from yesterday. I'd asked how things had been so far and the answer was pretty great! A Wilson's had gone past pretty early and they'd also had a couple of Great Shears and 6 (!) adult Sabine's Gulls. Pretty good stuff! Of course I could have been kicking myself over having missed the Wilson's but I have come to realise that sea-watching is such a brutal game that if you start going down that "if only..." route it can quickly "do your head in" completely. 

It's always interesting to look around at the assembled birders. It's funny how you can tell the serious battle-hardened watchers from the tentative beginners who won't call anything and rely on others to find and identify things. Myself, I suppose I fall somewhere in between the two camps. Compared to many I'm still relatively inexperienced and also I have issues with my eyesight which mean that I can't seem to see the same detail as some people. I also find that my eyes get tired easily and quickly glaze over staring at a blank seascape so I have to rest them regularly and I get tired after a couple of hours of watching. I'm a real light weight I guess! There weren't any locals on show and I've since leaned that they tend to prefer watching together from the lower car park away from the hoards.

I settled down and even managed to find and call a couple of Stormies myself. A couple more Sabs were picked up which I managed to get onto and with a couple of Bonxies and a couple of Sooties it was a pretty good sea-watch, especially for the wrong wind direction at Pendeen. 

A Rainbow over the Pendeen sea-watch

After a good couple of hours things started to go a bit quiet and as a fair portion of the other watchers started to leave, I too followed suit. With another couple of Sabine's under my belt it had been another good session.

Sea-watching: Part III

With conditions looking  good for another Pendeen session I mentally pencilled in heading down to the lighthouse once more. However, still feeling poorly and having to do some DIY tasks meant  that it wasn't until late morning that I was finally able to get down there. I elected for the lower car park this time where I soon met up with my local friends P&H who informed me that there had been a number of Wilson's sightings that morning - Gah! Still, there was nothing to be done and in lovely sunny conditions and being pretty sheltered from the wind I had a good chat and managed to see some good birds as well. It was mostly Skuas with Arctic and Bonxies seen as well as some Sooties and Stormies but no large Shears and sadly no more Wilson's. 

After heading back to the house for lunch I elected to come back mid afternoon. Things had gone quieter but later on SR who was sitting next to me, managed to pick out a Wilson's! This was what I'd been waiting for but sadly it kept going down on the sea and he lost it before anyone else could get on it. So frustrating, but it's pretty hard picking out someone else'e Petrel at the best of times and there was nothing I could do. I eventually headed for home and tried to be philosphical about it, though it wasn't easy.


Sea-watching: Part IV

The day before we were due to leave I had one more go on the sea. Once again from the lower car park though this time the wind was more northerly (perhaps too much so) which meant that it was much colder. It was a very difficult watch - I was feeling cold and ill, all the birds were very distant and I just couldn't seem to get on most of them though I did add a Sootie and a few more Skuas to my tally. In the end I gave it up as a bad job and headed back to the cottage

Pendeen Gannet

Thursday, 13 August 2020

Oxon Odonata

By any reasonable measure the Oxon Odonata world is thriving: already host to a great number of species, several more have been added this year with a surprise colony of Southern Migrant (Blue-eyed) Hawkers turning up at Otmoor, followed by some Scarce Blue-tailed Damselflies in Banbury and then over the weekend only the second record of Willow Emerald in the county. One thing I've learnt about insects is that in general they're much faster to colonise new places than birds. You've only got to look at the Southern Emerald colony that sprang up in a nearby home county as well as the rapid expansion of Willow Emerald across the country. So I wouldn't be surprised if all three of these species become well established in the county before too long.

I have a bit of an ambivalent relationship with Odonata. On the one hand I really enjoy learning all the ID subtleties and have loved working on my Odo list which now just missing the three Scottish specialities as well as some of the rarer migrants. On the other hand, repeatedly seeing the same few species over the course of an entire season just doesn't really do it for me. For this reason whilst I'll enjoy watching them and photographing them en passant such as on my patch at Port Meadow, I won't go very far out of my way to see them unless there is a good reason. However, a local Odo trip to see a new coloniser was certainly enough to prompt me into action. I'd mentally pencilled in a visit to see either the Scarce Blue-tails or the Blue-eyed Hawkers for some time but somehow the timing was never right: either we were busy en famille at the weekend or the weather wasn't right. In the end it got too late to see the Scarce Blue-tails.  As far as Otmoor was concerned, originally the Hawkers were found as immatures and after a while news went quiet on them. "Oh well, I guess I've missed those as well" I thought but then news of mature males started to be reported and finally one Sunday morning I was free to have a go. So off I set with my two daughters along for the ride though sadly despite plenty of seraching we didn't manage to see them. Nevertheless it was good to be out looking again and I was starting to get my eye in again. 

The following Saturday a female Southern Migrant Hawker was reported from the usual location. Fortunately, the next day I was free to have another go and so found myself walking, this time alone, along the Oddington to Noke track in the extreme heat, hoping I wasn't going to pass out from exhaustion! After a relatively short time of seeing Southern and Brown Hawkers buzzing around I spotted a small Hawker with quite an interesting jizz. It wasn't as "in your face" as a Southern Hawker and didn't have the same feel as a Migrant, something was different. Glimpses of the solid green thorax sides seemed encouraging and it didn't have the huge antehumeral stripes of a Southern. I watched optimistically as it circled for a long time till eventually it settled for a rest right at the top of the Hawthorn hedge and I was finally able to take some photos. It turned out to be an adult female Southerm Migrant  Hawker. Whilst the shots were nothing special given how high up she was, I was most pleased to have found my target.

Female Southern Migrant Hawker

Female Southern Hawker

Small Red-eyed Damselfly at the Oddington Weir
Migrant Hawker

In the extreme heat I didn't linger too long and once my target took off again so did I. I wandered back to the car in a good frame of mind. Maybe I will compile a county Odo list after all!

Friday, 31 July 2020

A Whole Lotta Rosy

Any half serious birder will be aware that this year is an irruption year for Rose-coloured Starlings. This species breeds in the steppes, semi-deserts and deserts of Central Asia and Southeast Europe but is strongly migratory, overwintering in India and tropical Asia. However when there is an abundance of grasshoppers and other insects then it will irrupt far beyond its usual range which is why they are turning up in such numbers in the UK this year.

Readers might remember that back in June when I went to see the Blyth's Reed Warbler at Far Ing in Lincolnshire, I did contemplate heading a bit further north to see the then resident Rose-coloured Starling at Collingham, Yorkshire but decided in the end not to. This has meant that despite this plethora of birds across the country I'd still yet to see one this year. What's more, of the various Rose-coloured Starlings that I've seen over the years (one in Oxon at Forest Hill and at least three in Cornwall) they've all been juvenile birds. Nice enough of course but I must admit that I'd been admiring the sheer beauty and colourfulness of the adult birds in the various photos this year and had mentally pencilled in making a bit of an effort to see one should the opportunity present itself. However, with sightings now starting to dwindle nationwide I was wondering if I'd missed the boat.

Fortunately Gods Own County of Oxfordshire came to the rescue. By all accounts we're having an excellent year here with a number of goodies such as Hoopoe and Red-footed Falcon already seen. This week, as you'll probably already have guessed, someone turned up a Rose-coloured Starling here in Oxon. This was actually the third such lead that our esteemed county recorder Ian Lewington had had to chase down but the previous two had turned out just to be leucistic normal Starlings. This one however was the real deal. Apparently comging to fat balls in a garden in East Challow, the news broke on Monday evening once the ID had been confirmed. Apparently Ian rang MM who actually lives in East Challow to tell him the news, and just as they were speaking on the phone the very bird in question came down to MM's garden pond for a drink - talk about coincidence! Those quickest off the mark were able to get down there that evening where the bird was seen though it proved rather mobile and elusive. I did contemplate going myself but in the end decided that it was getting a bit late and I was rather tired so decided to leave it until the next day.

The next day, those on site at first light managed to see it on the roof tops of Hedge Hill Rd, near the garden where it was first discovered. However, after a couple of sightings, by early afternoon the trail went rather cold. I'd decided on a visit after work but with no news since 1:30 pm and several people  already on site and not connecting I did start to wonder if I was going to succeed. Still nothing ventured and quite frankly I needed an excuse to get out of the house - this lockdown malarky is starting to "do my head in". So at 5pm I fired up the Quattro and headed off.  Rather stupidly, rather than listening to my Google Maps app's pleadings to go down the Botley Rd, I instead went onto the A34 ring road, thinking that at this time of day that would be quicker only to be met with a huge traffic jam which Google helpfully told me would take at least 9 minutes to get through. Anyway, eventually I was through though it was getting on for 6pm by the time I finally arrived at East Challow and parked up in the village hall car park. There I met SNT who'd just arrived at the same time. Whilst he chose to hang around by the church where it was seen at this time of day yesterday I chose to have a wander around. To be honest I was quite relishing the challenge: Starlings are relatively easy to see when they're not in a garden as they like to sit high up where they can survey things. So it was just a matter of wandering about looking at all the high up vantage points until I spotted it. "How hard can it be?" I pondered. At least it wasn't just standing around waiting for a bird to appear - something I tend to get rather restless when doing.

Up near Hedge Hill Road I met up with SB and his wife who'd not seen any sign. I did see quite a few Starlings on the rooftops here but sadly not the bird I was looking for. I did a quick circuit around the area before heading back down the road to check up with SNT, to find that BB had now joined him as well. Still no luck so I went back up the road again for a quick look about before heading back down. At this point, like all birders I started to have a natter about this and that. I was just chatting away down near the church when I happened to turn around and look behind me where I spotted a telegraph wire with a few birds on it. A quick lift of the bins and Boom - there it was! I put the word out so that other people in the area could come and see it and then set about taking photos. Sadly by this time of the day the sun was very low and almost directly behind the bird so conditions were pretty terrible and the quality was of the "record shot" level only.

Still it was great to see my first adult Rosy Pastor. The assembled few birders all papped away as best we could though given the light it was a bit of a half-hearted effort on all our parts. After a good ten minutes of more or less sitting there and doing nothing it then flew down and out of sight into what appeared to be a small farm yard of some kind. We all set about trying to find a viewing point into this yard. Whilst the others peered down drives I elected to head up the road where there was a footpath that lead off behind the houses and across the fields. By working my way around the field I was able to get around the other side and have a peer in. I was met with the sight of BB actually in the farm yard - apparently they'd been given permission to enter by the owner whilst I'd been on my detour.

At that moment the word went up that it was in flight. I saw it in amongst a dozen or so Starlings as they flew up from some hidden location and headed towards the tallest tree near the church. I was now stuck on the wrong side of the farm yard and so gingerly picked my was through the cow slurry as quickly as I could in order to join the others who were all papping away furiously as the bird presented itself on the right side of the light, albeit rather high up in the trees. I kicked the superzoom into action and managed a few shots myself.

The bird sat there preening for about five minutes before a Hobby came crashing through and put up the entire flock which scattered in various locations. At this point as I'd already got about as good a photo as I was going to get and it was getting late I decided to head back to Casa Gnome, enjoying the comforting glow of a job well done.

I later learnt that the bird wasn't seen again that evening nor was it around the next day so the Hobby must have scared it off from the location altogether. Still I'd managed to see my first adult Rose-coloured Starling and my third good bird of the year in Oxon. Not too shabby!

Friday, 10 July 2020

Surviving the Lockdown

With things slowly starting to get back to normal I thought that I'd reflect on the lockdown period, a strange twighlight world of home confinement punctuated by furtive forays out somewhere you hope you'll not meet too many other people. As a family at the weekends we've all needed to get out of the house and so we've been exploring some of the many BBOWT reserves within the county. Whilst I've been a long-standing member of BBOWT if truth be told I've not actually been to that many of the reserves. So when at the first weekend when we were all allowed out for socially distanced walks and the family asked where in the countryside would be a good place to go I suggested that we start to explore some of these locations. Whilst a café visit normally features strongly in any family outing, in these unusual times we resorted to a large flask of tea and some snacks to keep us going. Below is a summary of the various places that we've visited.

Sidling's Copse
I've visited Sidling's Copse a couple of times previously, once with my son in tow and once on my own but it was the first time for the rest of the family. Orchids and grassland flowers are a key feature here and there were still some Early Purples about though many of them were now swamped in the undergrowth.

Early Purple Orchid

The wooded area was completely carpeted in Ransoms (wild garlic)

Yellow Archangel

Bernwood Meadows
The next day we decided to go to Bernwood Forest. As we approached the main Bernwood car park we could see cars parked all along the approach road - clearly, as it was the first weekend of being allowed out, it was going to be heaving. So with a quick change of plans we headed instead to Bernwood Meadows where there was no one else. With a Cuckoo calling distanly as a backing soundtrack we wandered around the ususually dry Meadows. I was surprised at how few Green-winged Orchids were about and how stunted they were - I guess the very dry weather had taken its toll. From there we ventured into the wood and as we were some distance from the main car park and we kept off the main drag we hardly saw anyone else. We were lucky enough to spot a herd of deer running down one of the rides briefly before veering off into the forest.

Adder's Tounge Fern

Green-winged Orchid

Forester Moth - actually the first time I'd seen one. There were quite a few of them flitting sbout the place

Ardley Quarry
This turned out to be a bit of disappointment. It was an interesting enough site but smaller than we were expecting and whilst I rummaged about for butterflies the others soon exhausted the walking possibilities. I did spot several end of season Grizzled Skippers for my efforts but in the hot conditions they never settled long enough for a photo.

Bix Wood
This turned out to be a lovely wood. We approached along a footpath across a field and in the hot conditions enjoyed the coolness of the woodland shade. There was nothing of particular note on the nature front apart from some stunning Honeysuckle trailing down from the trees. A nice site though that I'd definitely want to visit again, just for the pleasure of the woodland walk.

Whitecross Green Wood
Personally this was the highlight of the various walks we did. A nice bonus on the way there was a Spotted Flycatcher on the telegraph wires at Horton cum Studley. This is always a less well know site and with the main car park closed we had the entire place to ourselves. What's more the rides were absolutely filled with butterflies. I know that the narrow rides there tend to concentrate all the butterflies in a relatively small area but it was full of them. It was mostly the usual stuff with Marbled Whites, Ringlets, Meadow Browns and all three Skippers but it was such a delight to see them all in such good numbers. Of course these woods are well known for rarer species such as White Admirals, Silver Washed Fritillaries and even Purple Emperors. We managed to spot several White Admirals and a fleeting glimpse of HIM though I didn't manage a photo of the latter. I heard several Marsh Tits calling and with some Common Spotted Orchids dotted around it was a great visit.

Beautiful Demoiselle

Common Spotted Orchid

White Admiral