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

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Hail to Thee Blyth Spirit

Regular readers will have noticed a distinct lack of posts over the last few months here. The reasons for this are several: I'm now working full time, albeit from home at present, so don't have the opportunity so easily to take the day off to go and twitch something. Weekends are taken up with family activities and in these present difficult times, I'm trying to keep as strictly "family time". Also, at the start of the lockdown due to Government restrictions twitching wasn't even an allowed option and it was only later on (which happily coincided with the Hoopoe and the Red-footed Falcon in Oxon) that it even became a possibility. Not that there's been a great deal that I would have wanted to twitch. I've watched with interest as we were invaded by Rose-coloured Starlings and Marsh Warblers but not enough to want to do anything about it. However, the sudden jump in Blyth's Reed Warblers records has been something that has picqued my interest. This species has been on my wanted list for a few years now: mysterious skulking birds which can only be identified by experts unless they are singing males and with only one or two records per year they would be a highly sought after life tick. That's all changed this year with dozens of records in the last couple of months mostly along the east coast. Most of them have still been rather skulking and most have been discovered through their song so there's probably an equal number of undiscovered females out there. Whilst most have done the usual "arrive exhausted, spend a day or two recouperating and then leave" routine, one bird up in Lincolnshire decided that he liked it so much that he set up territory. For the past week or so (at the time of writing) he's been belting out his song at point blank range in a desperate attempt to attract a mate. Given the numbers arriving in this country it's not altogether impossible that he might find one though the odds are of course heavily stacked against him. Still, a nailed down showy Blyth's was too good an opportunity to miss. I still hadn't really decided to go for it but just happened to mention to my daughter that if she wanted to head up to Edinburgh anytime soon to retrieve her stuff (which is stranded in her student room there at present) then that would be good. She replied that she wasn't allowed to do this just yet but a friend of hers in Doncaster has something that she needed. Now Doncaster happened to be rather near to my target bird so I didn't take much persuading to run this errand for her. So on Monday morning I waited until there was news of the bird's continued presence (which came soon enough - the bird was an early riser!). Then it was a matter of seeing if I could the day off at short notice from work. This was duly agreed upon and so shortly after 9 a.m. I was on the road.

My sat nav app was suggesting that rather than slogging up the M1, then cutting across the M180 instead to take the scenic route via the A46 and A15 past Lincoln. As this wasn't a route that I was that familiar with I thought that I'd give it a try. This turned out to be a nice, reasonably quiet way of getting there and with Radio 4 for company the miles slipped away. I'd left Oxford in bright sunshine but after a while I hit a wall of dull murk. To be honest I was quite pleased about this. The one concern I had was that I'd read reports of the bird stopping singing late morning and becoming much more skulking. My guess was that this might happen sooner the hotter it was so a bit of murk might help in this respect. Eventually I reached the turn off from the A15 and started to see signs for Far Ings Nature Reserve. The iconic Humber bridge hove into view - I was nearly there at last!

The Humber bridge
I parked up at the Ness End Farm, the Lincs WT centre, got tooled up and hurried up the road. As I went I met several other birders coming the other way. I'd forgotten how friendly people are up north - they all wanted to stop and chat. I obliged as much as was polite given that I'd yet to see the  bird though they all said that it was singing continuously. Eventually I reached the twitch area which basically consisted of a couple of Hawthorn bushes next to a ditch by the side of a single track road.

Staking out the two Hawthorn bushes
I could hear the bird singing away immediately so my concern about it stopping and skulking had proved unfounded. My main concern was the number of people there. This was my first proper out of county twitch since the pandemic and with a dozen birders crammed in a small space any kind of social distancing was going to be difficult. To start with I hung back and used my scope. After a few mnutes of singing hidden away my target bird flew up into a bare branch at the back of the larger Hawthorn where it continued to sing away and I was able to get my first view.
This seemed to be what a number of the present birders (mostly camera toting) seemed to want and after it soon ducked down into the ditch again a good half dozen of them left leaving a much more manageable number behind and I felt safe enough to move closer and to start to wield my superzoom camera. The bird was quiet for no more than a few minutes at a time though would often sing for prolonged periods out of view, sometimes down in the ditch. I'd listened to a number of recordings so knew what to expect though I must admit that I was truly entranced by it's lovely song. It would methodically and deliberately repeat each phrase a number of times and throw in lots of mimicry. It was fun to play "spot the impersonation" and this bird had quite a repertoire.

Occasionally it would fly up onto a bare Hawthorn bush where it was much more easily viewable and then everyone would pap away like crazy. The rest of the time it would skulk around out of  sight though with a bit of observering you could often see the reeds moving as it worked its way through the ditch and thus work out what angle to view from. So a number of times I'd manage to find an angle to view it from and would start taking some shots. The first time I did this some photo birder came and stood literally right next to me in his desperation to get a shot. I really couldn't understand  it - it wasn't like the bird  had been skulking away for hours. I told him in no uncertain terms that he was standing too close to me and that there was plenty of time to see the bird and he backed off apologetically. I just can't understand this craziness that besets photographers in situations like this. They seem so desperate for that money shot that all reason and etiquette goes out the window when they see their target.

I passed about an hour and a half in this way, enjoying listening to the bird and following it as it alternated between singing on an exposed branch and then skulking around in the ditch. By the end I felt that I'd well and truly seen a Blyth's Reed Warble and could head back for home content. I wandered back to the car in a peaceful frame of mind, stopping only to admire a Pyramidal Orchid standing all alone in an otherwise closely cropped lawn.

On the way back to the car I spotted this single Pyramidal Orchid that someone had carefully mown all around to leave it standing on its own
Back at the car I did contemplate going for the Rose-colourd Starling about an hour further northwards at Collingham in Yorkshire but there had been no news on it since first thing this morning. Whilst it was probably still there, after some deliberation in the end I decided to head back for home instead. I had to stop off briefly to pick up something for my daughter (thus making it an official errand rather than just some random twitch) but apart from that my journey back home was uneventful and I arrived back at Casa Gnome late afternoon for my customary celebratory cup of tea and a catch-up with my VLW.

Addendum: ID Breakdown

My interest in the whole identification headache for the Reed, Marsh, Blyth's complex was picqued recently by a great blog post by Gavin Haig on Not Quite Scilly - see here. In it he went into all sorts of detail regarding the recent Beer Head Blyth's, which was most educational as up until now all that sort of stuff about emarginations of P4 had completely gone over my head. I felt pretty confident that I could successfully identify a singing male from these three species without any difficulty but I was suprised at how tricky the Beer Head bird's song was (see here) - I would certainly have struggled. But what would happen if I came across a non-singing bird, would I be able to do it? Maybe it was time I finally got to grips with the differences. Accordingly and largely for my own benefit (though in passing I hope that this is also useful to others) here's the Gnome Guide to Reed, Marsh and Blyth's.

Feature Reed Marsh Blyth's
Head super stops at eye,
eye ring stronger than super,
dark lower bill
super stops at eye,
eyering same as super,
yellow lower bill
super extends beyond eye,
eyering same as super,
yellow lower bill
rufous tinge
yellow tinge
all over underside
dark grey tinge
warmer brown rump
than mantle and tail
rump concolourous
with mantle and tail
rump concolourous
with mantle and tail

7-8 tips
beyond tertials

7-8 tips
beyond tertials,
pale tips
6-7 tips
beyond tertials
little P4

little P4

little P5
tertials shorter
than secondaries

tertials extend
beyond secondary

tertials shorter
than secondaries

So, let's look at some photos  to illustrate all of the above.

Blyth's (courtesy of Ewan Urquhart)
supercilium extends beyond eye,
no contrast between eye ring and super,
yellowish lower bill

Reed Warbler (courtesy of Nick Truby)
supercilum largely stops at eye
eye ring stands out compared to super
dark lower bill
Marsh warbler (courtesy of Roger Wyatt)
super stops at eye
no eye ring contrast with super
yellow lower bill

Reed Warbler, courtesy of Roger Wyatt
rump a warmer brown than mantle & tail
rufous tinge to flanks

Marsh Warbler courtesy of Roger Wyatt
hint of yellow to underside

Blyth's courtesy of Ewan Urquhart
Short primary projection ~ 50%
strong emargination P3, P4, hint on P5
Short tertials don't reach secondaries

Reed Warbler courtesy of Roger Wyatt
Primary projection ~ 75%
strong emargination P3, hint on P4

I've certainly learnt a lot from putting all this together and now feel that with a half decent photo of a  bird in the field I'd be able to nail the ID. I just have to go and find something now!