Thursday, 9 May 2019

Red-rumped Swallow - Not So Grim Up North

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Ziggy and the Spiders from Durlston

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

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

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

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

Early Purple Orchids

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

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

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

Friday, 3 May 2019

Flava Flav - "Harder than you Think"

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

Main Points for Adult Male Yellow Wagtail Complex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller

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

Video courtesy of Badger

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

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

The first wave of twitchers all puzzling over the ID

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

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

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

Friday, 26 April 2019

Cornwall in Early Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marazion Glossy Ibis

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

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

...and this Red Chestnut

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Blenheim Bonaparte's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video courtesy of Badger

Courtesy of Roger Wyatt

Sunday, 3 February 2019

City Birding - Local Birds for Local People

There's not been a great deal about of late to tempt me on a Gnome sortie. As I don't have a great deal of free time presently due to work commitments I don't generally go out of county unless it's something really good (usually a life tick or something). However, I'm prepared to go short distances for something interesting and this week there have been a couple of very local birds in my home town of Oxford. Anything within walking distance has to be fair game and when Thomas Miller found a female-type Black Redstart loitering around the back of Christ Church College I thought that I would go and take a look. So last Sunday when my VLW said she wanted to nip into town for some shopping I decided to accompany her and to go and take a look for my self. It turned out to be easy enough to find, in amongst the first set of ivy on the south facing wall of the college that overlooks Christ Church Meadow. It seemed very much at home, treating the wall like a cliff face that is its more usual home. I was reminded of the bird a few years back that took up temporary residence in the courtyard of Lincoln College and like the bird today, spent its time picking insects out of cobwebs and from the ivy that was clinging to the walls. I spent a pleasant half an hour taking photos with my super zoom camera though the distance was just a bit too great for them to be of top quality.

A day or two later a pair of Ring-necked Parakeets were reported a couple of times in University Parks. Now this species is not yet that common in the county with a small colony down in Henley the only stronghold. However over the years there have been various sightings and the last couple of months of last year there were several sightings about Oxford itself including one that flew over my head near Port Meadow. Anyway, it seems that there are now two of them and that they've gravitated towards the University Parks which is obvious habitat for them. I'm rather hoping that they are going to get established there now. I know that some view them as pests but for me they are a very colourful and enjoyable addition to a city's birdlife. Anyway, so this week my computer power supply took it upon itself to blow up on Wednesday evening and with no computer I wasn't able to work on Thursday. Therefore, as it was a beautifully sunny but very cold day, I decided to take a walk down to the University Parks to see them for myself. Once I'd got to the Parks I wandered slowly over towards the river, souring the trees as I went but it was just the usual mixed Tit flocks to be seen. The pond itself was frozen over with the usual Mallards and Black-headed Gulls all loafing around waiting for their next batch of hand outs from visitors. It's great fun to throw bread at the gulls and watch them catch it in mid air and the braver ducks will feed from your hands but I was breadless today.

I was just passing around the back of the pond by the river when a strident bird call woke me from my reverie. "That's a funny sounding Parakeet" I thought to myself before my befuddled brain engaged properly and I realised that the Kestrel-like call was that of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. It had flown right overhead but right into the sun so I'd not been able to see it at all. However it called again and then started drumming on the far bank somewhere. I hurriedly tried to find it in the nearest treetops but wasn't sure if it was there or in the next set of trees further back. I therefore hurried over to the Rainbow Bridge and crossed over. It drummed just once more but then fell silent so I wasn't able to track it. I hung around for a bit but there was no further sign so I went back to the bridge (where I'd still be in earshot) and started to look for my original quarry which I'd been told, usually loitered in the trees near the bridge. There was no sight nor sound of any Parakeets to be had and no further sound of the Woodpecker either. I wanted to hang around a bit more in case either bird should call again so I decided to tramp about in the overgrown wet Meadows to the right of the path where I'd read a Woodcock had been flushed a few days ago. I spent a good half an hour tramping about to no avail, with nothing more than damp feet from my leaky boots gained for my efforts. So I headed back towards the bridge where I heard the sound of a calling Parakeet and lo and behold, there was a single calling bird. It didn't settle before flying back towards the centre of the park. I followed it but disappeared without my being able to get a photo.

Some great video footage of the University Park Parakeets courtesy of Badger (c)

With time marching on I decided to head back home. On the way I met a fellow birder who was asking about what I'd seen. I told him about the Parakeet and it turned out that he worked at St. John's College where he saw them in the college grounds from time to time. I am assuming that it's the same pair touring the city centre rather than other birds. I also mentioned the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker which he was most interested in.

The University Parks used to be a know hotspot for seeing this species though there haven't been any reports there for quite a few years. Sadly the bird today had been heard for no more than five minutes and with no further sight or sound of it in the ensuing hour or so it was in all probability just passing through. In addition Greater Spotted Woodpeckers tend not to take kindly to their presence and this larger species has been reported regularly in the subsequent days by people looking for the Lesser Spotted. Indeed the last time I was lucky enough to find a Lesser Spotted (on the Trap Grounds by Port Meadow) it was again there only for a few minutes before I watched a Greater Spotted chase it off. Therefore, I don't hold out a great deal of hope of it being found again though the habitat was fantastic. Let's hope that despite the odds it makes another appearance.

A photo of the 2016 Lesser Spotted Woodpecker from the Trap Grounds

University Park's Mistle Thrush

Monday, 14 January 2019

Review of 2018

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

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

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

The Red-necked Phalarope - Patch Bird of the Year

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

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

Green-winged Teal, courtesy of Badger

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

Northmoor Hawfinch

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

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

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

The Woodway Richard's Pipit, courtesy of Roger Wyatt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cosham Ortolan Bunting

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

Wanstead Rustic Bunting

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

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

Fen Orchids at Kenfig

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

Musk Orchid at Noar Hill

Burnt-tip Orchid at Ladle Hill

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

Southern Emerald

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