Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Edinburgh Interlude

Long standing readers will remember past university run trips to Durham and Swansea to ferry my two daughters to and from those academic institutions. Both girls have now completed their undergraduate degrees and both have had a year off to think about things. However, so daunting was the prospect of the world of work that both have now decided to return to the sanctuary of university life and are both now about to embark on post graduate studies. Whilst my eldest is going to stay on at Durham to do a Ph.D., my youngest is now going to do a Masters at Edinburgh and as Scottish terms start earlier than in England, last Friday I took her up there. 

As usual I thought that I'd take the opportunity to see what was around on the bird front and there was one present rarity that caught my eye, namely the unidentified Wheatear near Pilling in Lancashire. I say unidentified but it's an adult female of either a Pied or an Eastern Black-eared Wheatear. It appears that for adult females it's almost impossible to tell these two species apart in the field and I've been following the debate on-line with some interest Whilst I've seen a couple of Pied Wheatears over the years I've yet to see a Black-eared so I was very much hoping that it would turn out to be this latter species. Whilst it was found at the start of last week I was optimistic that it might stay for some time as autumn Wheatears are wont to do and so it proved. Indeed by the time our daughter and I had set off from Oxford at around 9 a.m. on Friday it had already been reported as still present that day. What's more it was only a relatively short distance off the M6 and conveniently located about half way from Oxford to Edinburgh so it would be a perfect spot to stop for lunch. The one possible fly in the ointment was that the weather forecast was for very strong winds and I had wondered just how well the bird would show under such conditions.

The journey northwards was uneventful and at around 1pm we were turning off the M6 for Pilling. As we neared our destination it was interesting to note how the countryside started to have that coastal feel to it, with everything looking a bit more bleak and windswept. We arrived at the car park to find quite a few cars present and I could see a small gathering of birders on the sea wall a few hundred yards away, presumably where the bird was. It was indeed very windy and I had to put on numerous layers before we battled through the wind to where the other birders were. I needn't have worried about the bird as it was constantly on show though in the conditions it was almost impossible to hold the camera steady. In the end I set up my scope and used that to rest my camera on it. This gave enough stability to get some reasonable shots off.

After about ten minutes we both retreated to the sanctuary of the car to eat our packed lunches. Then whilst my daughter decided to stay put I girded my loins and sallied forth once more to take more pictures. The other birders had now gone and instead there were a couple of new birders looking for the bird. As they were in the wrong place I shepherded them further along to where it had last been seen and sure enough it was soon on show again. The sun came out and gave the opportunity for better photos though it was still very blowy.

The Pied/Eastern Black-eared Wheatear

Lots has been written about this bird's identity already and it must be the most photographed Wheatear presently in the country so there are no shortage of photos of it. I don't pretend to have any expertise in separating the two species. All I can say is that having seen the bird and numerous photos and comparing it with the plates in my Collins, the colouring most closely matches the Eastern Black-eared Wheatear though I'm quite prepared to accept that there's more to it than that. Anyway, a poo sample has been taken for DNA purposes and I await the outcome with bated breath - after all there's an armchair tick at stake. I have read though that it's possible that even the DNA analysis won't be conclusive and that these two species are known to hybridise so we may never know.

After having got all the photos I wanted it was time to head back to the car and back towards the M6 for the long slog up to Edinburgh. Fortunately we had some friends who lived in the city and who'd kindly agreed to put us up for the night as my daughter wouldn't have access to her room until 9 am on Saturday morning. We arrived there just before 6pm and were soon settling down to a nice meal and a chance to catch up. After dinner we decided to go for a walk down to the centre of town to see where my daughter's accommodation was. It all looked good and we met up with one of the student wardens there who seemed most helpful. Then it was back to our friends' place where after such a long day we were soon hitting our beds for the night.

We were up early the next day. After breakfast we said goodbye to our hosts (though I had provisionally asked if it might be possible to stay that night as well) and headed off with the aim of getting to the student accommodation location at the opening time of 9am. We actually weren't the first people there though we were efficiently dealt with and soon unloading the car's contents into her simple but functional room. Eventually it was all done and it was time to say our goodbyes. Despite having gone through all this before with both daughters I still felt surprisingly emotional about it all. Still I'm sure she's going to have a wonderful time there.

Now, having fulfilled my paternal duties what had I got lined up on the birding front for today? Well, there had been nothing of particular note in Scotland: a Surf Scoter and a Pectoral Sandpiper at Musselburgh were a possibility but I had my eye on a grander prize. I'd been thinking that this was probably as good an opportunity as I was likely to get to have a crack at the resident Black Duck at Strontian over to the west in the Highlands. The only trouble was, after a flurry of daily reports of its presence in the spring, there'd been precious little news for the summer. Indeed when planning my trip up here I'd more or less written this bird off as a possibility with no news for over a month but then last weekend it was reported as still present in its usual place upstream of the second bridge so I thought that I'd give it a go. Of course given its location whilst it was only a relatively modest 140 miles way, it was going to take over three and a half hours to get there and the round trip was going to be equivalent in time to driving from Oxford to Edinburgh again. Still, needs must and with a weather forecast of sunshine and no wind it was with some optimism that I set off for the slog westwards from Edinburgh.

It was indeed a long old drive but once I started to get out into the Highlands the scenery started to change and crossing Rannoch Moor and the Pass of Glencoe in the sunshine was absolutely glorious. It had been a few years since I'd been in the Highlands and in the sunshine my soul rejoiced at the beauty of it all. Eventually I arrived at Corran to take the ferry across Loch Linnhe. Whilst the ferry only takes a few minutes it cuts off many miles of extra driving and is certainly £8.50 well spent. Indeed the opportunity the take in the scenery for ten minutes or so whilst waiting for the ferry was worth it alone.

On the Corran ferry
Once safely disembarked, it was left past the Corran lighthouse and on the last leg of the journey along the shores of Loch Linnhe. I spotted what looked like a Black Guillemot in amongst a flock of close in loafing gulls on the water though I didn't see it well enough to be sure. Then it was time to turn inland to meet up with Loch Sunart where Strontian is situated. As a matter of interest the village's main claim to fame is that the element Strontium was first discovered there as part of historic lead mining operations and once the element had been isolated it was decided to name the element after the village itself. But enough science nerdiness, finally I was there and I turned off up the narrow single track road that ran alongside the River Strontian to park up by the church. There I tooled up, put on my walking boots and headed the few years to the "second bridge" that was so often mentioned in the reports of this bird. Were all my efforts going to be in vain? I was about to find out.

The picturesque second bridge across the River Strontian
I crossed the bridge, having a quick scan upstream first though there was just an eclipsed drake Mallard standing on a stone in the river to be seen. This was one concern of mine: in eclipse plumage how easy was it going to be to recognise the bird? I'd swatted up on the salient features: yellow bill, plain dark grey brown body, no white edging to the tail and no thick white on the speculum as a Mallard had - it should be straight-forward enough. I turned left just past the bridge and headed the few yards past a wooded area to a more open though rather overgrown area just as the river started to bend round a little. There were a number of paths here where past birders had no doubt forced their way through the undergrowth and I took one of these and headed down to the river. I immediately came across a couple of ducks. One was a female Mallard and the other looked like my target bird. The only trouble was that the pair were very shy and immediately swam off at great speed before I could get much of a photo and started skulking deep in the shade under a tree out of sight. 

Hmmm, I was reasonably confident though not 100% after what I'd seen. I started walking upstream to see if there were any other ducks around and I put up a couple of birds that were resting close to the near bank. They immediately flew off upstream a long way. I really hoped that my target bird hadn't been one of those two as otherwise I wasn't going to see it again. I went back to the first pair though they were still tucked way out of sight and I could only get glimpses of them hidden under the trees. I decide that the best thing to do was to give them a while to come out again so I could get a better look. So I elected to walk down the river to stretch my legs and to get a cup of tea at the café at the bottom of the river by the roadside and this I duly did. On the way there was a nice Hooded Crow in the school playing field to take a look at, a pleasant reminder of my current Highland location.

Local Hoodie
After my tea I wandered back up the river and hoped that the ducks would now be more cooperative. However they were still hiding so in the end I decided I'd have to go to them. So I worked my way through the small wooded area down to the riverside where I found the pair skulking under their tree. The drake was having a nap but eventually he woke up and started to move about and I was at last able to get a really good look at him. He had all the salient features and was clearly my bird. I checked the tail which was all dark and he eventually gave me a nice wing stretch so I could check out the speculum. Job done!

Skulking Black Duck at the back with his Mallard mate

...and a bit more out in the open though the sunshine made for very contrasty photographic conditions
It was after 4 pm now and I had to decide what to do. One option was to start heading south and to stay the night at some relatives who lived in the Lake District. However, with that being a good five hours away that was just too much. So in the end I sent a text to my Edinburgh hosts asking if I could stay the night again. Then I drove the short distance down to the village post office and store by the loch side where I bought a few provisions for an evening picnic. Then I drove a little way along the road until I found a nice lochside location where I could stop and have my meal, a rather late lunch/early dinner. Then it was back on the road and the long slog retracing my steps. I didn't mind though, with a successful Black Duck tick under my belt and the beautiful sunny scenery it was all very pleasant. On the return ferry journey I spotted a few distant Eider on the loch but that was about it. Once the sun set I started to feel very tired and it wasn't until after 8:30 pm that I finally arrived back at my hosts. There after catching up on news of their day I soon retired to my bed and was sound asleep.

The next day I bade my friends goodbye and was on the road some time after 9 am. I stopped off briefly to have a look around Blackford Pond where I'd seen a Ring-necked Duck in April last year after having seen the Musselburgh White-winged Scoter but today there was just the usual suspects. Then it was on the road for the long slog down south. I took it easy and stopped several times for tea and once had a brief nap. So it wasn't until late afternoon that I arrived back home at Casa Gnome, tired but pleased with my excursion north of the border.

I thought that I had to update this post with the news of a quite extraordinary break-through in the ID of the mystery Pilling Wheatear. New broke on Wednesday morning that the ID had been firmed up to definitely Eastern Black-eared Wheatear - which was the one that I wanted it to be! The reason for the confirmation turns out to be some white at the base of the mantle feathers which apparently is only shown by this species. Note though that normally these feather bases are hidden from view and it was only this photo (by Paul Ellis (c) - see below)  which happened to show a ruffled mantle where you can see under the feathers above to the base of one feather which clearly shows this white base. Talk about difficult ID! Still I'm not complaining as this has turned my trip into a two ticker - result!

courtesy of Paul Ellis (c)

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Credence (Manx) Shearwater Revival

My title puns are getting more and more contrived! Anway, it's all been rather quiet on the birding front in Gnome world of late. This is partially because of the lack of anything decent that I really "needed" and also partially because work is increasingly taking up most of my time now. I can only drool with envy when I read various other blogs where people have the time to go off seeing this and that. Unfortunately, that's not presently where I'm at with my life and I'll just have to put up with it. 

There was a brief flurry of excitement on the Oxon county birding scene yesterday when at just before 6pm news broke of a Manx Shearwater at Farmoor found by DJ. Now this species has a history of turning up in Oxon in September. In fact since 2001 all three records have been in September:

Sep '04  Farmoor, with it or another returning a week later
Sep '09  Farmoor, spent all day there
Sep '17  Bicester, taken into care

The first one was before my time, the last one wasn't twitchable and I was otherwise engaged with family activities all day for the '09 one so was the perfect opportunity for the "grip back". I checked with my VLW who was just about to start the dinner but fortunately it was something that would keep so off I sped to Farmoor. After a bit of huffing a puffing up the causeway I was soon watching my first county Manx Shearwater. I'd been told by DJ and TS (who was also there) that it had been in very close just before I arrived but the large number of sailing boats that were out on the water kept pushing it about and it would fly a short distance before settling again. By the time I got there it was a fair distance out. I tried to do some digiscoping of it but my camera battery chose that moment to die so I wasn't able to do that. So instead below are some gripping photos taken by TS

All photo courtesy of Terry Sherlock

The others soon left and I decided not to linger very long so soon started to head back just as various other county birders started to turn up. It was nice finally to get a county tick on the board for this year - let's hope something else good turns up soon.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Cornwall August 2019

Another compilation from my Pendeen Birding sister blog.

It was time to come down once again to our beloved Cornwall for the annual summer family holiday. This year it was just for one week and looking at the weather forecast before coming down it didn't look that promising with showers and winds most of the week but crucially no really stormy weather that might be good for sea-watching. As is so often the case, the forecast turned out to be wrong and the weather was actually much better than anticipated, at least for the first half of the week. What's more, Friday and Saturday turned out to have a proper storm so there was sea-watching to be had after all.

Coming Down
These days we tend to come down on the Sunday to avoid the Saturday change-over gridlock on the M5 but this time we'd agreed to visit my VLW's sister in Ilfracombe on the way down which meant travelling on the dreaded Saturday after all. It was as stop-start as predicted but eventually we were off the M5 and wending our way along the painfully slow roads to Ilfracombe. After some tea and a catch-up with our host we went for a walk down first along the cliffs by the shore and then to the harbour which was a hive of activity because of the annual Birdman event that was on. This involves people throwing themselves off the pier in order to see who can "fly" the furthest though whilst we watched there was little actual flight and more just falling into the water.

Rock Sea-spurrey
The first contestant getting ready to launch
The next day after a leisurely start we said goodbye to our host and headed on down into Cornwall itself. As we couldn't get into our cottage until late afternoon since we had some guests staying there, we decided to stop off en route somewhere "up county" and elected on the Lost Gardens of Heligan which some of our party had not previously visited. I'd last been there for the Green Heron that took up residence there a few years ago but sadly there was no such rarity there presently. Still it's a lovely garden to explore and we all had fun crossing the swinging rope bridge in the Jungle and we enjoyed a nice tea there (always an important part of any visit). I always feel that given the great habitat there it ought to have some good birds but I guess it's just not fundamentally situated in a very good location.

A Swallow in the potting shed at Heligan
After our visit, it was back into the car and on down to Pendeen itself to open up the cottage and to get settled in for the evening.

Monday 5th August, Marazion to Perranuthnoe
As the weather was good we decided to kick off our first full day with one of our favourite walks: from Marazion over to the Perranuthnoe café and back. As usual we parked up in the overflow car park at Marazion and fought our way through the vast crowds into the town centre. There we checked out a few galleries and shops before finally working our way down onto the beach at Little London where at last we were able to enjoy some peace and quiet. There were loads of Sand Martins hawking their way over the beach as we spent some time scouring the sands for sea glass to take back home. Then with the tide right out it was the usual wander along the beach towards Perranuthnoe. There were a few Whimbrel, Curlew and Med Gulls scattered along the beach as well as quite a lot of noisy Oystercatchers and a couple of Little Egrets. Every time I walk along the beach I am reminded of the numerous attempts I made to see the long-staying Hudsonian Whimbrel that graced this area a few years ago. 

The café was relatively empty and we all enjoyed our mid-walk treat before heading back again the same way. On the way back I found a flock of five Common Sandpipers, resting up on the shoreline before making their big push out across the sea.

Common Sandpipers
We spent more time looking for sea glass at Little London - we all managed to find some. Then it was back through the Marazion to the car then then home.

Tuesday 6th August: Drift Reservoir & Nanjizal
The weather forecast was a bit iffy today in the morning so once the family was finally up and ready to get on we decided that the rest of them would spend the morning wandering around PZ whilst I would do my own thing. Whilst the others were still getting ready I went for a quick wander down to the lighthouse to see what was about. There were quite a few juvenile birds bumbling about on the more sheltered side of the  headland with a young Whitethroat, several young Goldfinches, a young Meadow Pipit and a juvenile Wheatear all seen. I met a semi-local birder there - like me he had a place down here and came down regularly though hadn't yet made the move permanent. He said that he far preferred sea-watching at Pendeen to PG (as do I) and he reported a Cory's that morning which wasn't too bad given the SW wind direction. As a matter of interest the two PC's reported a dozen or so Balearics and a couple of Sooties from the car park that morning as well.

Juvenile Wheatear at Pendeen lighthouse
Once the rest of the family were finally ready we headed off. I dropped them all off in the centre of town and then headed off to Drift. I had the place entirely to myself as I wandered around over to the hide. I was looking out for Odonata as there were supposed to be Red-veined Darters at this location though it was too overcast and nothing was on the wing. At the hide I soon found the resident Wood Sandpiper and the two juvenile Garganey as well as a Common Sandpiper and several Green Sandpipers. There were a couple of Little Grebes, a few Great Crested Grebes and a smattering of the usual loafing gulls and geese. A Green Sandpiper right in front of the hide made for a decent photographic subject though it was partially obscured by vegetation.

After a while the sun came out and with it the first Dragonfly in the form of a marauding Emperor in front of the hide. I decided to explore beyond the hide a bit but all I could find was a single Black-tailed Skimmer. At that point I got a call from the family that they were ready to be picked up so I started to head back to the car. I walked back along the shoreline and in the now bright sun it was suddenly full of Dragonflies. There were quite a few Emperors and loads of Black-tailed Skimmers but sadly no Darters. Part the bend and on the home straight towards the car park it was more windy and there were far fewer Dragons on the wing. I'd all but given up when I put up a Darter right under my feet. Fortunately it eventually settled and proved to be my sought-after Red-veined Darter at last. I only had time for a quick snap or two before I had to hurry back to the car for my rendezvous.

Red-veined Darter
After I picked up the family we headed over to Trevilley where we parked up and had a quick walk over to Nanjizal beach. The tide was in and we didn't linger before retracing our steps. The only birds of note was a Stonechat family down near the beach. Back at the car we headed the short distance to Trevescan where we wanted to try out the Apple Tree Café. There we enjoyed a well-earned tea and cake before heading back to the cottage for the evening.

Wednesday 7th April: St. Just to Pendeen
Another one of our regular walks is to take the bus to St Just and then to walk back along the coast to Pendeen. As the weather was reasonable today we decided to do this. We were able to start earlier than usual and after making a packed lunch we drove up and parked in Pendeen in time to catch the bus into St. Just.

As usual we spent some time in St Just first of all, visiting the St Just Arts and Crafts Fair and also the Kurt Jackson gallery. Both my VLW and I really like the work of the latter and if it hadn't been for the very hefty price tag we both said that we'd have contemplated buying one. After having done the art and having bought our usual journey ice creams from the Co-op we headed down past Boscean and down to Kenidjack to say hello to the donkeys as usual. Along the stream we managed to see a number of Golden Ringed Dragonflies as well as the numerous Banded Demoiselles.

Kenidjack Golden-ringed Dragonfly
In a break from tradition and as it was rather hot we had our packed lunch down in the valley in the shade of a large Sallow. Then it was up the track to the coastal path and back towards Botallack and Geevor. There was remarkably little to see on the bird front on the journey with just the odd Stonechat, Raven and Kestrel to be seen.

The cryptic Grayling showing how well camouflaged it is

At Geevor whilst the others headed towards the café I lingered amongst the ruins to see what I could find. One is almost always guaranteed a Wheatear here and sure enough I soon found a juvenile bird in amongst the Linnets.

Geevor juvenile Wheatear
After our tea we headed back into Pendeen to pick up the car and head back to the cottage for the evening.
This one post is actually covering several days as there's not so much to report. Thursday was spent with my VLW's niece who lives up county a little way. She and her two daughters came down for a visit and we spent the day catching up and chatting.

Thursday 8th to Saturday 10th, Mousehole, Porthgwarra & Pendeen
As I mentioned in the introduction, a storm was forecast for Friday and Saturday so on Friday I negotiated with the rest of the family that they would go to St Ives whilst I went to PG. The wind direction was straight south and I'd been told by DP that perhaps Saturday where it was more SW might be better, especially after it had been blowing for a longer time but I thought that I'd chance my arm on the Friday. I arrived at PG car park at around 8 am on Friday morning to find it completely full. I met up with P&H there and also Oxon birder AL who'd driven down overnight to try his luck. However, I also met a number of birders coming back from the sea-watch already, saying that it was terrible up there with very little going through. Various locals there all had theories about why the sea-watching has been so poor so far this year, including why the fish were further south this year than they normally are and how the birds are following the fish. After having weighed all this up in the end I thought that I'd postpone my session until tomorrow instead so turned around and headed back towards Pendeen. The others had only just got up anyway so we arranged to do some DIY tasks in the cottage first of all and then to head over to Mousehole to visit the Rock Pool Café. Whilst the others then went on to look around the town I stayed at the café and did some sea watching but apart from a few Kitiwakes and a single Ocean Sun Fish there was nothing of note.

So on Saturday morning I tried again. Once again the PG car park was completely full by the time I arrived but once again there were people coming back off already saying it was no good. Still, this time I had no choice as this was the last stormy day so I headed up to the cliff top. There were loads of people up there, so many that a second camp had been established further east of the main one at Hella Point in the lee of some smaller rocks. I headed to Hella Point itself where I endeavoured to find a spot where I could hear the calls but wasn't too exposed. On enquiring it turned out that things had been dreadfully slow but shortly after I arrived the first Sooty of the morning went through. As things dragged on people started leaving and I got a better spot. A couple more Sooties passed through as well as a few Balearics and one Stormy but that was it. As numbers continued to dwindle people started chatting amongst themselves and I too took the opportunity to catch up with GW an Oxon birder who is almost always guaranteed to be at PG in any kind of stormy weather at this time of year. Eventually at around 1:45 pm I threw in the towel and headed back to the car. In a text exchange with the rest of the family it turned out that they'd finished at St Ives so we agreed to rendezvous at Zennor to check out the Arts and Crafts fair there. There we had our obligatory tea and a chance to check around the exhibits before heading back to the cottage. 


The truth is that all week Pendeen had actually been performing as well if not better than PG. I'd occasionally done a spot of sea-watching from the downstairs cottage window and had been pleasantly surprised at how effective it was. It seemed that despite the increased range, the fact that your scope wasn't shaking in the wind meant that you could get a clearer view all the same and it was still possible to ID things. So having arrived back and with a quick glance out the window showing that plenty of birds were passing the Pendeen headland I decided to have a go at viewing from the upstairs window instead where I could sit on a comfortable chair and have a more panoramic view. This turned out to work very well and I soon had Arctic Skua and Storm Petrel on my house list. I was occasionally called away to do things by the others but I put in about a couple of hours all told during which I added Bonxie and couple more Stormies to the list as well as seeing a number of Whimbrel and Arctic Terns go past. To be honest I don't know why I'd not thought of doing this before but I shall certainly try this again - it makes the whole experience much more enjoyable.

Sea-watching from the upstairs window

Back Home via Illogan and Clevedon
Sunday it was time to pack up and go. With more guests arriving later on that day we were packed and out the door by 9:30 am. We stopped off first at Jordans to get some journey snacks. Then I persuaded the rest of the family to make a detour to Illogan where a Ring-necked Parakeet had been reported from the churchyard several mornings recently. The churchyard turned out to be a wonderful wilderness with signs saying that it was a "Living Churchyard" designed to promote wildlife. It was fabulous and full of insects and flowers of all kinds. All the family really enjoyed exploring it and seeing Thomas Merrit's grave (the composer who wrote 'Hark the Herald Angels' Christmas carol). Unfortunately there was neither sight nor sound of any Parakeets - let's hope that this bird takes up residence here and sticks around.

Anyone with any interest in wildlife must be aware that this year is a Painted Lady year we saw loads of them all week
We headed on homewards, stopping off for a break at Clevedon in north Somerset. Being only just off the motorway it apparently had a nice Victorian pier that we wanted to take a look at. Clevedon turned out to be a nice little town and the pier was pretty but expensive to go on so in the end we amused ourselves looking for more sea glass on the beach. This turned out to be a particularly productive site and we all founds loads. Then it was back to the car and on homewards to catch up with our cats who we're sure must have been missing us very much. 

Clevedon pier

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.