Tuesday, 25 June 2019

An Elusive Little B*stard

Any birder with their finger anywhere remotely near the pulse of UK birding would no doubt be aware of the amazing find of a Little Bustard at Slimbridge WWT in Gloucestershire on Sunday. Now this species is pretty rare in the UK: apart from a flurry of four records in 2014/15 (of which only one Yorkshire record was twitchable) you have to go back to 2002 for the next one on the Scillies. What's more this was a splendid male complete with full black head, rather than the more usual drab immature "female types" that often stray into our country in their youthful ignorance So all in all, definitely a bird to try to see if at all possible.

Now, Slimbridge is very much within my twitching radius and indeed at under an hour and a half's drive I'm prepared to go on fairly speculative twitches there at the drop of a hat. So had it been a weekday's find then I'd have been all over it but weekends are generally not so easy for me as I usually have family stuff to do. In this case more so than usual as it was my son's 13th birthday so there was no question of making a sortie of any kind. Still, it was very much one to mark down as a "go for it on news" the next day.

The next day dawned and at 7 am there was indeed news of it still being present. Due to pre-opening access only being offered in hourly increments I felt that there wasn't actually much point in heading off immediately and in any event I just wanted to make sure that it was being reported at regular intervals as it had been the previous day. So I held off and for a while it seemed that my suspicions might have been justified as there was no news on it again for an hour and a half. However at 8:45 a.m. news came through again of it being seen on and off so I fired up the Gnome mobile and headed west along the A40.

The journey was uneventful and I arrived at Slimbridge at around 10:15, got tooled up and yomped off on the long slog out past the construction site that used to be the Holden Tower, on to the Summer Walkway towards Middle Point and the Dumbles. I could see the large crowd in the distance and as I got closer they all seemed to be looking at something intently. "This should be fairly straight-forward" I mused as I hurried to join the throng. 

The twitch line. At a peak it was at least double this number!

Once installed and upon asking my neighbour it turned out that things weren't quite as straight-forward as I'd been hoping: the bird was proving rather elusive but was very occasionally being seen right at the back of the very long grass. The trick was to catch it as it popped its head up out of the grass briefly, though this was easier said than done. My neighbour directed me to a distant patch of grass between two wooden posts and bounded at the front by a patch of thistles. "Keep looking in there and you'll see it eventually" he told me. I looked away at the wrong moment for he said "Oh, it showed really well there" but I didn't see it. Sadly after that it didn't show again in that area and my neighbour, after apparently four hours of no more than such glimpses, had had enough and decided to leave.

The Twitch Vista - just a vast expanse of extremely tall grass!

Gradually the ranks of the twitch line swelled as more hopeful birders joined in, all straining to see this elusive bird. Given how long the line was, it was quite hard to tell whether someone further along was on the bird or just giving directions to the right patch of grass to look at. Quite a while later there was a definite and clear sighting that was had by some others in a completely different place though by the time I'd worked out where they were looking it had gone again. How frustrating!

It was starting to get very hot and muggy and as it was now more than two hours since I'd arrived and I'd still not managed to see it, I was starting to get very disconsolate. As there seemed to be more possible sightings coming from further along the line I opted for a change of location to see if it would improve my luck. More people came and people who'd been there longer and who'd seen the bird, started to leave. One new arrival kept claiming that he could see something in the grass though none of the rest of us could despite looking through his scope. After a long while where he said "I think I can see it flapping its wings", he then finally announced that actually it was just a flower that he was looking at! Someone else thought he saw something in the grass elsewhere only to change his mind - grass blindness was definite setting in!

By now it was more than three hours since I'd arrived. I was starting to think about at what point I would have to throw in the towel. There was not much else to look at: quite a few Skylarks were buzzing about and in the distance there were lots of Crows. Over on the estuary itself there were plenty of bids though the haze was so heavy that it was very hard to make out what they were apart from the largest ones which included some Barnacle Geese, lots of Shelduck and a Heron or two. An Oystercatcher landed quite close and nosed about in the grass near us - if only the Little B*stard would do the same! A new batch of birders arrived around me and somehow their fresh keenness lifted my mood a little. In addition, a bit of a breeze had sprung up and it wasn't quite so oppressively hot any more. I girded my loins and went back to ceaselessly scanning the sea of grass for something birdlike.

Finally there seemed to be a change in the chatter further down the line: the tone was more urgent and excited - could this be the news we'd been waiting for? I headed a few yards down to get the instructions: "between the third and fourth post to the right of the large dead log, not counting the post in front of the log itself". I hurried back to my scope, passed the instructions on the rest of my birding neighbours and we scanned the area. "Blimey, there it actually is!" we all exclaimed more or less at once as the much sought after black head of the male Little Bustard stood out from the grass. Relief flooded over me and also over much of the rest of the twitch line, judging by the change in the sound of the chatter all around me, all at once jovial and upbeat now that the tension had been released.

A far better view of the bird than we had, taken by Andy Jourdan (c) the previous evening (from the RBA website)
It wasn't exactly a crippling view - at this distance and in the haze I didn't even attempt to reach for my digiscoping gear but at least you could clearly see what it was.Thank heavens it was a male bird as the black head stood out nicely and you could often make out the white bands on the neck as well. It seemed to be fairly faithful to the area right at the back between the two posts and as this distance was less than a scope's width it was fairly straight-forward to keep track of the bird. At regular intervals the head would disappear but then re-appeared a short distance away so you could follow its progress as it moved about. We all watched it in this way for a good twenty minutes. Everyone was managing to see it apart from our flower stringer chap who was really struggling. One of the others who cued up his scope so it was pointed at the right spot politely suggested that he might wish to clean his lens as it was filthy. Eventually he thought that he might have seen it though he didn't sound entirely convinced.  For my part I was just mightily relieved to have seen the bird and indeed to have been able to watch it for about twenty minutes. Accordingly after it disappeared for longer than it usually did I decided that it was time for me to head off as well. 

I wandered happily back towards the centre and thence to the car.  Here I hungrily demolished the snacks I'd brought with me - I'd not brought a proper packed lunch as I'd not thought that I'd be away for as long as it had actually taken in the end. Finally I fired up the Gnome mobile, cranked the air conditions up to 11 to counteract the muggy conditions and pointed the car in the direction of home. There was some entertaining programs on Radio 4 to keep me amused on the journey and so I arrived back in the bosom of my family just before 4 pm, feeling happy and looking forward to a well-earned celebratory cup of tea after finally gaining my first UK lifer of the year.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Waiting for the Man - Totternhone Knolls

With Orchid season well under way now, I felt that it was time that I tried to see some more of the species that I've yet to see in this country. The only problem with this idea was the rain. Whilst the nice thing about flowers is that they don't disappear in the rain as insects and to a certain extent birds do it still it doesn't make for an enjoyable trip so I've been holding off until there was a break in the weather. Last Friday such a break finally came and with a nice window of sunny weather forecast for the afternoon I decided to venture forth. Of the Orchids that I still needed to see, one of the closest sites where they would presently be in flower was Totternhoe Knolls with Man Orchid the target in question. Situated between Leighton Buzzard and Dunstable it was a little over an hour's journey to get there so after lunch I set off.

After an uneventful journey I pulled into the car park and as I was getting ready a Corn Bunting serenaded me from the other side of the trees surrounding the car park. I headed up the small slope to the main track at the top where there are a number of different directions to take.

I'd been advised that the Little Hills area was a good area to search so rather than heading out into the flat area in front of me I turned left and followed the path the lead up a steep incline along the left hand side of the reserve. Through the trees I could catch occasional glimpses of the view: I was actually quite high up and except for the trees it would have been a great vista. As it was mid afternoon there wasn't a great deal of bird activity but a few warblers were singing away hidden in the undergrowth and I heard the distant song of a Yellowhammer on one occasion. As I went I scrutinised the various Umbellifers that lined the way, looking out for Great Pignut - much rarer relative of the Pignut that is only to be found in this one area of the country. According to the reserve notice board it was to be found here and I soon came across some of them.

Great Pignut. Excuse the crappy photo with my hand in it but it was the only way to show off the diagnostic leaves

After about a fifteen minute walk the track turned suddenly to the right and there was a gate in front of me. Peeking through I could see the steep slopes and hollows of the Little Hills area. The slopes were covered in Common Spotted Orchids everywhere you looked. I headed down into the dell and started to hunt for my main quarry.

By far the commonest Orchid were the Common Spotteds. They were everywhere you looked
It didn't take too long to find it: at the far end of the area there were a couple of caged off areas and sure enough there were at least a dozen Man Orchids in each of the two areas. The only problem was taking photos through the cages and I had to go through various contortions to get some nice shots.

Man Orchids
Having got my fill of the main target I had a wander around to see what else was about. I soon found some Common Twayblades in amongst the Common Spotted and there was a the odd Pyramidal Orchid to be found as well.

Pyramidal Orchid
Common Twayblades
As I wandered about I did come across one or two uncaged Man Orchids which were much easier to photograph. There were also a few Common Blue butterflies and the odd moth though I didn't manage to see any of the day-flying Black-veined Moths that were supposed to be found at this site.

Common Blue
There were various other floral delights including this striking Sainfoin which lit up the slopes in various places
I wandered about in a very contented manner for far longer than I'd originally intended and so it was after 5 pm by the time I headed back to the car park. I therefore had to fight the rush hour traffic on the way back home though with Radio 4 for company in the end it wasn't too bad. It had been a most pleasant afternoon at a very nice little site, one definitely worth another visit at some point.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Red-rumped Swallow - Not So Grim Up North

Last Friday I was just gearing up for the start of the working day when news broke from the north of the county up at Grimsbury Reservoir that a Red-rumped Swallow had been found. There have only been three previous records of this national rarity with the last one being at Farmoor in May 2012 which I managed to see, so it wasn't going to be a county tick. Still it was only 30 minutes away and with only a modest amount of walking at the other end it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up so I threw on some clothes, fired up the Gnome Mobile and headed northwards. Despite the heavy traffic coming into Oxford, going out was fine and so it was that almost exactly 30 minutes later I was pulling up at the reservoir. Given the very overcast conditions with rain threatening at any moment I wasn't too worried about the bird moving on: this was perfect weather for keeping it in one place. A quick text enquiry ascertained that the west side of the reservoir was the side to be on and I yomped off to find a small group of twitchers right at the far end so I hurried to join them. As soon as I arrived JT put me on the bird which was hawking low over the water in overcast conditions. I watched it for a few minutes before losing sight of it. 

A short while later JD messaged to say that he was watching it down at the other end of the reservoir so I hurried back to that end (thank heavens Grimsbury is such a small reservoir compared to Farmoor!) to find that it was coming regularly to sit on the railings of the small pontoon that jutted out into the water, offering sitting views of no more than 25 yards or so. I waited patiently and a short time later it did indeed return. I was able to get some great shots of it with both my superzoom and my digiscoping gear.

Yours truly waiting for the return of the star bird, courtesy of Justin Taylor
You couldn't really ask for better views of a Red-rumped Swallow - so often it's just distant in-flight views that one gets so this was something special and more than made up for the nasty dip of this same species that I'd had in Cornwall earlier in the year.

After a while as the weather lifted it moved off and restarted feeding over the reservoir. Having had such great views of this gem of a bird I felt that there wasn't any need to hang around and I headed back home, a most contented bunny. As I write this some five days later, the bird is still around, so it's turning into a bit of a long stayer. Who knows I may even go for seconds!

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Ziggy and the Spiders from Durlston

Last year as part of my on-going quest to see all the UK orchid species I'd fully intended to pay a visit down to the south coast to see the Early Spider Orchids. However with their flowering in April and the fact that as usual we went to Cornwall during the Easter holiday, in the end I never managed it. So this year I vowed to make a special effort to get down there though in the end it wasn't until the last day of April that I finally made the trip. I opted for Durlston Country Park, a spot where I knew they were present and which I'd previously visited to see my last UK butterfly species, namely the Lulworth Skipper a few years back. The two and a half hour journey down from Oxford was uneventful though a road closure meant that I had to detour closer to Bournemouth than I'd originally planned but I arrived at around 1 pm to find conditions sunny and warm. I quickly yomped down to the steep slopes where I'd seen the Lulworths before, thinking that this would be where the orchids were also located but alas there was not an orchid to be seen.

Durlston Lighthouse
I therefore had to slog my way all the way back up the very steep slope and to head to the visitor centre to ask where they were to be found. It turned out that they were all in one field at the back of the Education Centre instead so I headed back towards where I'd parked the car and then on to the track behind the Centre. In the third field past the Centre I started coming across orchids - I was at last in the right spot! It turned out to be a large grassy meadow with quite close cropped grass with clusters of orchids dotted about in various places. The Early Spiders were mostly to the north and east sides whereas the other two species (Early Purples and Green-winged) were dotted all over the field. 

As it was getting rather late in the season many of the ESO had already gone over but I still found enough specimens still in full bloom to be worthy of a photograph.

Early Spider Orchids
I wandered about for a fair while, enjoying the EPO and GWO as well.

Early Purple Orchids

Green-winged Orchids
After I'd had my fill I wandered down to the cliffs to look at he Auks that were nesting on the cliffs. There was a fair collection of them bobbing about on the sea as well as a few that were visible at the base of the cliffs.

Shag, Razorbill & Guillemots at the base of the cliffs
Auks on the sea
My first Wall Brown of the season

Then I headed back to the visitor centre for a quick cup of tea and some cake before heading back to the Gnome Mobile and set the coordinates for home. Unfortunately due to a problem with my charging cable my phone soon ran out of battery and without the aid of my Sat Nav app I ended up going around the outskirts of Bournemouth in the rush hour so it took much longer to get back than it should have done. Still I arrived safely back at Casa Gnome in time for another cup of tea and a catch-up with the family. It had been an enjoyable first orchid sortie of the season.

Friday, 3 May 2019

Flava Flav - "Harder than you Think"

With birding, there are certain cans of worms that are generally left unopened until one is forced to. One such can is the whole Yellow Wagtail complex with the various subspecies which all look bewilderingly similar. I have to 'fess up right now that in a fit of enthusiasm quite a few years ago I bought the Helm "Pipits and Wagtails" book but since then I've not really used it at all, chiefly because I've not really had any cause to. This all changed in the last couple of weeks when a couple of interesting subspecies turned up in Oxfordshire which finally forced me to at least start to get to grips with it all. So largely for my own education, but also in case it's of interest to readers, below I've laid out a summary of the complex. Please note, I've missed out a few of the minor subspecies in this in order to make it simpler:

Main Points for Adult Male Yellow Wagtail Complex

British Yellow Wagail (M.f. flavissima)
Here in the UK
Yellow head, supercilium,  yellow throat

------- the blue headed variations -----

Blue-headed Wagtail (M. f. flava)
West Europe and west Russia
Blue/grey head, supercilium, yellow throat

Syke's Yellow Wagtail (M. f. beema)
Kazakhstan, & SW Siberia
Blue/grey head, supercilium, yellow throat, white lower cheek area

Eastern Yellow Wagtail (M. tshutschensis) - now a full species
Central and south eastern Siberia
Blue/grey head, supercilium, yellow throat, ID'd on call or DNA

Spanish Wagtail (M.f. iberiae)
Iberia and NW Africa
Blue/grey head, supercilium, white throat

------- the grey/black headed variations -----

Black-headed Wagtail (M. f. feldegg)
South east Europe and Asia
Black head, no supercilium, yellow throat

Grey-headed Wagtail (M. f. thunbergi)
North Europe and North Siberia
Grey head, no supercilium, yellow throat

Ashy-headed Wagtail (M.f. cinereocapilla)
Italy, Sicily & Sardinia
Grey head, no supercilium (or just a hint), white throat

In terms of how they're identified it's all down to subtle things to do with the combination of the supercilium, the head colour and the throat colour. I've picked out the key points in the table in order to make sense of it all. Of course the females are all much harder to ID - don't even go there!

So the first of the two interesting birds was one found by RW late one afternoon at Farmoor. Looking almost monochrome in terms of colouring, this first winter bird immediately had us all hoping for Eastern YW which as a separate species would be a tickable Mega for Oxon. Apparently it's possible for more western bids to look like this as well in certain circumstances so to claim EYW requires either DNA evidence (so poo or a feather) or at least a recording of the call

First winter Yellow Wagtail species, perhaps M. f. beema (Syke's Yellow Wagtail), courtesy of Roger Wyatt
Our esteemed county recorder IL pointed out that this bird has pale cheek coverts below the eye which isn't a normal characteristic of EYW and is a feature which is diagnostically generally only shown by M .f. beema (Syke's YW). Sadly, the bird was only seen one other time by one other observer a few days later and despite a last gasp twitch to try and see it myself on the second occasion, it was nowhere to be seen. Thus it has to remain unidentified to sub-species (or even species) level though it did prompt much debate amongst Oxon's birding community.

Fast forward to the first day of May and post afternoon tea, I decided that I needed to get out of the house to stretch my legs so decided to wander down to the Meadow. There I met TM, who, as a young student birder has become more obsessed about birding Port Meadow than even I was when I first started (and that is saying something!). Sadly the years of patch birding has taken their toll on me and I'm not as keen as I used to be but TM has taken up the baton with gusto and visits far more often than I do. As I strolled up to Burgess Field gate I spotted him hunched over his scope, though as there were no flood waters left any more (they were dried up in the recent spell of hot weather) I couldn't help but wonder what he might be looking at. As soon as I arrived he excitedly told me that he had a dark headed male Yellow Wagtail species. He shared a few photos that he's phone-scoped and it did indeed look like a bona fide male continental Yellow Wagtail species of some sort. I took a quick look through his scope, put the word out and hurried home to get my scope (which I'd not bothered to encumber myself with now that the floods were gone).

Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller

Upon my return I set about examining the bird for myself and comparing it to the photograph that I'd taken on my phone of the appropriate page in the Helm guide. The first thing to note was that it had a grey head of some type but no supercilium at all. That immediately ruled out whole bunch of candidates and left: Grey-headed, Black-headed and Ashy-headed. As other county birders started to arrive we debated the ID back and forth for some time. The bird definitely had a grey rather than black head with a noticeable mask effect, reminiscent of a Lesser Whitethroat. The lack of a black head ruled out  Black-headed and so left either Grey or Ashy-headed with the main differentiator between them according to Helm being that Ashy had a strong white throat whereas Grey had a yellow throat. Now, this is where it started to get tricky. As you can see from the photo above, it does at first glance seem to have a white throat but when actually looking at the bird through the scope, it was more of a very pale lemon wash rather than a clean white throat. Thinking about it later, it was certainly possible that in the rather overcast conditions and against the dark head the paler throat was burning out somewhat in the photos, making it look paler than it was. Take a look at the video below where it looks less white than in the above photo, though still definitely paler.

Video courtesy of Badger

Also in this photo below (taken as a grab from the above video) you can see that it's less white looking....

Grab courtesy of Jason Coppock
In the end we realised that we were at the limit of our experience on this and needed to wait for someone who actually knew what to look for to come and tell us what the ID was. Gradually the other birders drifted away but I decided to stay on just so I could keep tabs on the bird until more people came - I knew that IL at least was on his way as he'd called earlier. Eventually the next shift arrived and I headed back to cook a rather late dinner for my son and myself. As I was departing IL arrived and he said that from the photos he'd thought it was a Grey-headed and once he'd had a chance to look at the bird in the field he was soon able to confirm this for definite.

The first wave of twitchers all puzzling over the ID

Interestingly enough, an Ashy-headed Wagtail was actually presently on the Scilly Isles. From looking at photos you can see that there's no doubt about the demarcation between the white throat and the yellow breast  - something that was clearly lacking with the Port Meadow bird and which made the Meadow bird the Grey-headed that it turned out to be. So for me one of the take-aways from this is that for the white-throated species in the complex, it's not just that you think the throat might be white - there really shouldn't be any doubt about it.

Ashy-headed Wagtail on Scilly presently, taken from the Scilly Spider blog, all rights reserved
In terms of past records in the county, this is only the third one. The only other two were way back in 1992 where two were found in the same year, one at Farmoor and one on the Downs during a mini national invasion that year. So in terms of rarity this is a definite county Mega!

All in all as they say an educational bird. I'm personally glad to have opened this can of worms and feel that I have a much better grasp of the whole Flava complex now. Now, if only I dared to get to grips with the female side of the complex! Flava's - they're "Harder than you think"

Friday, 26 April 2019

Cornwall in Early Spring

Another repost from my Pendeen Birding sister blog.
It was time for another Easter break visit to the Far South West. We were due to come down on Sunday 14th but a minor medical eye emergency on my part which needed to be checked out (which fortunately turned out to be nothing serious) meant that in the end we didn't come down until the Monday. My VLW's sister was with us on the way down: she had been staying with us in Oxford while she was convalescing (it's a long story) so we'd agreed to take her back to her home at Ilfracombe en route. Fortunately, in the end we arranged to rendezvous with some friends of hers at some services on the M5 to avoid having to make too long a detour and they took her the rest of the way. Still it broke up the journey nicely though by the time we finally arrived in Penzance it was far later than we were normally used to. Arriving at the cottage we first had to deal with our neighbour who'd been "over enthusiastic" with pruning our garden Tamarisk trees (without our permission). This took several days finally to resolve to our satisfaction but we eventually got an undertaking from him that he'd not do this again. Still it rather soured the start of our stay.

Pendeen Raven...
...and a Pendeen Stonechat

Spring Squill
As usual our day was broken up into the pattern of doing DIY in the morning and then going on an outing in the afternoon to get tea somewhere. Both my VLW and I are getting to the point of being thoroughly fed up with the endless DIY that has to be done on every visit down here. The trouble is that the cottage is just in such an exposed spot that the weather always finds a way of causing one problem or another. Does it mean the end of our trips down here? It's too early to say but there's a limit to how many DIY "holidays" we want to have.

A pair of Wheatears at Geevor seen on our usual walk over to the mine tea shop

As you can tell by the fact that this is a single blog entry to cover the entire trip, this was a very low key trip with precious little to report on the birding front. I re-acquainted myself with all the usual local suspects and I enjoyed seeing the first migrants coming in with Willow Warblers seen working their way north through Pendeen most days. The main highlights of the week were the Pied Crow which turned up at Land's End during the week, the Marazion Glossy Ibis which was around all week and some nasty dippage of a Red-rumped Swallow, again at Marazion. 

Some sightings from a trip to our favourite café, the Rock Pool Café at Mousehole
The Pied Crow turned up one afternoon whilst we were out visiting the Trewidden gardens for the first time. Because of various family commitments I didn't finally get down to the Land's End complex until it was getting quite late. I arrived to find SR and PW watching it fly off towards Sennen. I got good enough views to be able to pick it out in flight quite easily but it was less than satisfactory. I did try visiting the complex a few more times on subsequent days to look for it but it was never around when I was there.

During one of our usual family trips over to Marazion to sip tea from Jordan's whilst overlooking the sea I popped over the road to see the Glossy Ibis which was nice to catch up with. I've seen a few down in Cornwall so it's not a county tick but nevertheless, given how quiet it was I was pleased to see something, anything even, of interest and this bird was pretty cooperative.

The Marazion Glossy Ibis

On the day before we were due to depart news came up of Red-rumped Swallow at Marazion that DP had found. It was really windy that day with a stormy south easterly raging away, making conditions down at Pendeen pretty impossible. Unfortunately I did have some weather proofing DIY that I'd promised to do first thing so I could leave until about 30 minutes after I first got the news. Sadly those 30 minutes proved critical as when I arrived at Marazion I was told that it had last been seen about 20 minutes ago. Grrrr! I spent a bit of time in the eastern corner of the reserve where it was more sheltered, in the company of MM watching the House Martins, Sand Martins and Swallows hawking over the marsh but their continental cousin never re-appeared. LL turned up to take a look - I know him from his student days when he and I birded my patch at Port Meadow together so it was nice to catch up. However, it was scant compensation for dipping what would have been a county tick and the dip somehow encapsulated what had been a somewhat frustrating week all round.

We left the "moth light" on when the weather was calm enough. Pick of the bunch were this Oak Beauty...

...and this Red Chestnut

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Blenheim Bonaparte's

Bonaparte's Gull has something of a history in spring in Oxfordshire. Indeed if you look back at past records they have all been in April or May:

Farmoor, April & May 2017
Farmoor, April 2009
Farmoor, May 2007
Farmoor, April 2006
Farmoor, May 2000

So perhaps it shouldn't have been too much of a surprise when Nic Hallam (not for nothing is he called the "Gull Whisperer") found a wonderful adult Bonaparte's Gull on Blenheim Palace Lake a few days ago. Having seen the last two county birds I wasn't in too much of a hurry to go and pay my respects but instead waited a few days until I had a convenient break in my work schedule. Since my family are quite partial to a visit to Blenheim themselves we decided to make a family outing of it. Thus whilst they wandered off to visit the butterfly house and to ride the miniature train I headed off catch up with what would be my third county Bonaparte's.

As I was heading off towards the central bridge that divides the lake into the Queen's Pool to the north and the Lower Lake to the south I thought I'd better catch up on my RBA texts. To my consternation there was a message saying that the Boney's had last been seen at 1pm before flying off high to the south. That didn't sound too promising. It was now 2:30pm, had I managed to come just after it's final departure? Actually I needn't have worried: I arrived at the usual viewing area (south over the bridge then turn west and walk down the slope to view the Lower Lake - see here) to find a couple of birders there who informed me that the bird had returned a short while ago. Relief!

Viewing conditions were pretty terrible: we were looking into bright hazy sunshine and the bird was either flying around between us and the old boat house or resting on the water on the far side of the lake. Having read several other blog posts on the matter, I realised that I'd forgotten to bring the all important bread that would lure the gulls in close enough to get a good look - doh! I therefore had to content myself with scope views which were adequate but not exactly crippling.

Bonaparte's Gull is very much a birder's gull - it has a number of subtle difference compared to our Black-headed Gulls (which were also present today). In flight the most obvious feature was the lack of dark underwing primaries. BHG has P8 to P4 quite dark on the underside, giving a dark tipped look in flight whereas by comparison BG is strikingly pale. One would also regularly get glimpses of the lovely bubblegum pink legs as it flew around which was an instant diagnostic feature.

Blenheim Bonaparte's Gull in flight - pale P8-P4 & bubblegum legs, courtesy of Roger Wyatt

Black-headed Gull - note the dark P8 - P5 undersides, from the internet (c) original photographer
When settled on the water the usual diagnostic feature is the slimmer all dark bill compared to the chunkier more deep blood red colour of the BHGs though in the hazy light and at a distance this wasn't always obvious. The hood of the BG was also darker than the rich chocolate colour of a BHG and extended further down the neck though this can be misleading as the extent of the hood does depend on posture. One of the other birders also pointed out that when resting the BHG's generally had a longer necked look to them compared to the more compact jizz of the BG though you can't see this so much in the photos below as the BHG is in loafing mode.

Floating Blenheim Bonaparte's - slim dark bill, dark hood extending further down the neck, courtesy of Roger Wyatt

Black-headed Gull - chunkier deep blood red bill, chocolate hood that doesn't extend down the neck
(c) David Hastings, Birdimages.net
Aside from the gulls there was a drake Mandarin, a couple of Common Terns and the usual water fowl that one might expect. As I made my way back up to the bridge a flock of 25 Sand Martins flew in, swirled around the bridge for a few minutes before heading on their way. I checked the island on the Queen's Pool which had a bunch of nesting Grey Herons and at least 6 Little Egrets but no Great Whites. There were also a couple of Shelduck on the Queen's Pool.

Having had my fill of the Boney's I met up with the family and we rewarded ourselves for our respective endeavours with a nice tea in the tea rooms before heading back to the car and home.

Video courtesy of Badger

Courtesy of Roger Wyatt