Thursday, 22 February 2018

Cornwall In February

Another amalgamation of my Pendeen Birding posts from a half-term trip down to the far South West.

11th February, Back Down (Finally!)

Regular readers may have noticed a distinct lack of posts for quite some time. Indeed there was no sign of my usual October visit which is normally the highlight of my Cornish birding year. The reason for this was because of the unusually poor birding autumn that we had nationally last year. I suppose that it has to balance out the fantastic autumn of 2016 where we had constant easterly winds all autumn channelling all those lovely Siberian Accentors and other eastern goodies our way and after that feast had to come some famine. Whatever the reason, it was prevailing south westerlies all autumn last year and whilst I'd blocked off the whole of the month for myself at the cottage, as I followed things from afar there was never any moment where I was at all tempted to come down. So it's not until now that we've finally made it down for our traditional February half term visit to the cottage to see how it's survived the winter so far.

Given the time of year (and the distinct lack of anything tempting on the bird front) there was no urgency to our coming down this week so we did some leisurely packing on Saturday and then on Sunday morning at some time after 10 we set off, stopping first to pick up lunch (which we'd forgotten to make before setting off) and then for petrol. Having been scouring the CBWPS web-site in the week leading up to our departure my interest had been piqued by a couple of reports of Marsh Tits at somewhere called Cardinham Wood (which I'd never heard of until then). The reason for this interest was that this was a bird that embarrassingly I still needed for my Cornish list. Actually, it's not so surprising as they're not to be found at all on the Penwith peninsular with College Reservoir probably being the closest location. It's one of those species which I knew that I would catch up with eventually but hitherto had not actually got around to it. A quick bit of research showed that Cardinham Wood was actually just a few minutes off our route along the A30 and with the promise of a cup of tea in it, my VLW didn't take much persuading. It turned out to be incredibly busy there: indeed there were so many dog walkers around that we did wonder if we'd inadvertently stumbled into some doggy convention of some kind. We eventually found somewhere to park and whilst my VLW and our son L went off to get the hot drinks in, I soon located the feeders which were right next to the café. A large number of Siskins were camped out there and Coal Tits and the occasional Blue Tit were also regularly visiting. It wasn't long before I saw my Marsh Tit though it seemed to prefer not to linger on the feeders at all but would do a "hit and run" before eating its food in a nearby tree so try as I might I wasn't able to get a decent photo at all. Apart from that there was a Grey Wagtail and some Chaffinches feeding on the dropped seed under the feeders but that was about it.

This was the best I could manage with the Marsh Tit...

...whereas the Siskins were much more obliging
The rest of the journey was uneventful and at around 4 we arrived for our customary Sainsbury's shop before heading off to boot up the cottage. It was incredibly windy on the north coast and the cottage heating system took some time to coax into life but eventually it was up and running and we settled in for the night.

12th February, Pendeen, Newlyn & Mousehole

With no particular reason to get up early we had a bit of a lie-in this morning and over a cup of tea in bed my VLW and I put the world to rights. Then it was time to take stock of what needed doing in the cottage (which thankfully wasn't too much) before I headed out for a wander down to the lighthouse. It was the usual stuff: a single Raven, a couple of Chough in amongst the Jackdaws and a flock of Linnets in the horse paddock. Down by the cliffs it was nice to see that the Fulmars were already back and investigating various rock ledges for prospective nests. I always check the garden at the Old Count House down next to the lighthouse car park: I have this dream of finding something like an Yank thrush of some kid there one day but it was just a Song Thrush today. I scoured the lighthouse building carefully for Black Redstarts but couldn't see any. On the sea it was just Gannets and Fulmars with just the occasional Auk flying through.

Not the rare thrush of my dreams today

In the afternoon we decided to head over the hill towards PZ where my VLW and our son wanted to do some shopping. So I dropped them off and headed on to Newlyn to look at the gulls. However, they seemed to be doing some building work there so it wasn't possible to walk along the quayside like I usually do and in the end I headed along the road to view from the old stone quay instead. However, I couldn't see any white-wingers and eventually I headed back to the car to pick up the others.

"You looking at me?" - a thuggish Great Black-backed

One of the cute clockwork Turnstones that are always running around the quayside at this time of year
As it was time for tea, we decided to head along the coast road to Mousehole to the Rock Pool Café. Unfortunately they didn't have their usual gluten-free cake selection so in the end I settle for a hot chocolate with added lardiness. Whilst the other two lingered I headed back out to the car par where I spotted a birder huddled under the shelter of the wall scoping St. Clements Island. It was gull guru ME who'd been there for some time watching the various white-wingers coming and going so I settled down to join him. He picked out a juvenile Glaucous Gull on the island as well as a possible Smithy though he said that you were never going to be able to see enough to nail it down at this distance.

A rubbish video-grab of the juv. Glauc
When the rest of the family came out I bade ME farewell and we headed back to the cottage via Sainsbury's to off-load some recycling that our eldest daughter had helpfully left behind last year from when she'd been down with her friends. Back at the cottage with a storm forecast for that night, we battened down the hatches and settled in for the evening, trying to keep warm as the wind whistled around the cottage.

15th February, Newlyn & Hayle

No posts for a couple of days because of stormy conditions. Strong south westerly winds, often with rain, kept us house-bound for much of the two days though we did manage a trip over to the museum café at Geevor one day. The highlight on the birding front was watching all the birds working over the waterlogged horse paddock next to us to feed on the worms as they came up to the surface to escape the water.

Today however, the wind had abated and there was even some sunshine. It was still a breezy westerly so we decided to head over the hill to PZ and to walk along the sea front from Jubilee Pool to Newlyn, a walk that we'd not done before. We were lucky enough to find a parking space right on the main road at the start of our walk and whilst it was still a bit breezy it was pleasant enough. With the tide out there was not much to see apart from the usual Little Egrets feeding on the rock pools and some loafing gulls. 

Once in Newlyn it was noticeable how much more sheltered it was. My VLW and our son popped into Warrens for some sort of pastry lunch (sausage rolls rather than pasties today) whilst I (thanks to my wheat intolerance) had to content myself with a packed sandwich that I'd brought along. We parted ways here, the other two to explore the shops whilst I searched the harbour for gulls. I soon found the juvenile Iceland Gull loafing on the shoreline. It would occasionally stir from its slumbers long enough for me to take a photo or two.

I managed to find the female type Black Redstart at the back of the harbour car park and was lucky enough to get a nice photo of it as it briefly perched on a bin.

I met up with the others from the part and we worked our way around the harbour, exploring the old stone quayside and then onwards to Sandy Cover. Here I met with PF who was taking a couple of people on a local birding tour. I managed to spot one of the resident Water Rails in the copse and out on the sea there was a Great Northern Diver. On our way back towards the car I managed to spot the juvenile Glaucous Gull flying around the harbour, thereby completing the white-winged harbour set.

Back at the car there was some debate as to what to do but in the end we decided to head over to Hayle. We parked up by the causeway and the other two then walked toward the town to do some shopping whilst I birded the Saltings and Ryan's Field. There were plenty of birds around and the tide was on the way in so they were all reasonably close but nothing of particular note in either location.

Ryan's Field Redshank
I checked in on the others who still had stuff to do so I then headed around to the Copperhouse Creek area to see what I could find but apart from a Greenshank it was the same birds.

Copperhouse waders
I then went to pick up the other party and we headed back to the cottage for the evening.

16th February, Back Home

We decided to head back home today. It was always either going to be today or Saturday and whilst the forecast was for nice sunny weather today, somehow the two days lost to poor weather had taken their toll and I just wanted to go home. As we packed (which always seems to take far longer than it should) I spotted a couple of Chough feeding in the horse paddock. One was ringed but the other appeared to be unringed, perhaps the result of successful breeding last year.

Our journey back was uneventful apart from a report from P&H of a White-billed Diver and a (the) Pacific Diver both on view at Mousehole from the Rock Pool Café car park. I was most gripped as I needed White-billed for Cornwall still. Still, there's nothing that one can do apart from to be philosophical about it all. One day!

Sunday, 21 January 2018

A Teasing Teal

Last year the best Oxon bird of the year, a Little Bunting, arrived in the normally unproductive month of January and this year the same month has once again pulled a bit of a county Mega rabbit out of the hat in the form of a Green-winged Teal. For some reason this species seems to be rarer in Oxon than the other relatively common yank duck, namely American Wigeon. In fact there have been several of this species during the ten or so years that I've been birding in the county yet this was the first Green-winged Teal during this time. It was first found by MC on Monday last week down at Pit 60 and reported as a "probable" since a hybrid had yet to been ruled out. In fact it wasn't firmed up until last light by which time it was too late to make the trip over there. I therefore had to wait until the next day where, due to work commitments first thing I decided to wait on news and then to head off mid morning if it was still around.

Fortunately, it was still reported first thing so it was that some time after 10 a.m. I found myself hurrying down the muddy tracks towards the Langley Lane hide on Pit 60 in the company of JD. There was no one in the hide itself so we had to open up the slats and find it for ourselves. Not that it took very long and JD had it almost immediately in the extreme left hand corner from where we were looking. It was very actively moving about and indeed all the Teal were rather flighty and the flock of four Eurasian Teal that it was associating with soon moved to the middle of the pit where there was more swimming around before they all went behind some reeds. A Peregrine on a distant pylon then put them all up and down again so that they were scattered throughout the middle of the pit and we had to start the whole search again.

At this point a couple of other county birders popped in and we tried to find it for them. We managed it in the end though due to the wind direction they were unhelpfully facing directly away from us and it was hard to pin our target down from this angle. In the end the others managed at least "tickable" views before the bird disappeared into the reed bed at the far end out of sight. The other two took this as their cue to leave whilst JD and I headed to the other hide to see if we could winkle it out again. With no luck there either I decided to head off and walked back to the car a happy bunny, basking in the warm glow of a new county tick.

I wasn't able to take any decent video at all so here's some superb footage
courtesy of Badger, the Video Master

Whilst in the area I thought that it would be positively rude of me not to pop into the nearby village of Northmoor to pay homage to the resident Hawfinches in the church yard there. In the sunny conditions I managed good views of them almost immediately - far better than the brief distant views of this autumn just gone. I took a few snaps with my super-zoom camera and then headed for home. It had been a most rewarding morning's county birding.

Northmoor Hawfinches

As a footnote, the Teal wasn't actually seen again after we saw it so I was actually very lucky to catch up with it in the end.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

2017 Retrospective

It's time for some end of year navel gazing with a chance for me to look back at the year's highs and lows. As usual I'm going to divide my birding into three sections: patch birding, county birding and life listing.

Patch Birding
By all measures it was a rather poor year on my local Port Meadow patch. I've written up a more detailed review of the year here but the main issue was that the floods dried up very early (by the start of April) and didn't reform until the end of November so there was a large chunk of the year without any water including the vital spring and autumn passage periods. The year list total was a measly 114 compared to 120 to 130 in decent years and the bird of the year there was a Great White Egret that was seen by one lucky observer (not me, grrrr!) for just a few minutes up at the Wolvercote end. All in all its best to draw a hurried veil over the whole year and move quickly on.

County Birding
It was actually an OK year in Oxon with a number of nice birds on the county year list, not that I saw many of them. The start of the year saw a flurry of good local birds with some Cattle Egrets, Waxwings and my personal county bird of the year (and a county tick), a smart Little Bunting near Over Norton.

One of the three Cattle Egrets in amongst the pigs

Waxwings are always nice birds to see

The Little Bunting

After such a great start to the county year things went predictably quiet until April when a wonderful Bonaparte's Gull was discovered at Farmoor. Although I missed it's first appearance, about a week later it was back and indeed it lingered for a fair while.

The Bonaparte's Gull

There was also a lovely Wood Warbler at Spiceball Park in Banbury which I went to visit. Amazingly it was the second year in a row that this rare county warbler had been seen at this location.

The Wood Warbler courtesy of Ewan

After that I went into full-on botanising mode for the summer (which I'll cover later) so it wasn't until September that I was back into county birding. There was a visit to Farmoor for a serious Shagathon

One of the half a dozen or so juvenile Shags at Farmoor

Shortly after there it was back to the concrete basin of despair for the Red-necked Phalarope, not a county tick thanks to the one at Bicester Wetlands Reserve a couple of years previously but still a great bird to see.

Red-necked Phalarope

Later on in the autumn there were more local birds to see with a Water Pipit at Farmoor, a potential Lesser Scaup (that frustratingly turned out to be a hybrid, thereby denying me a county tick) and a some Hawfinches that were finally pinned down as part of the national irruption of this species.

A filthy mongrel!

So all in all, not such a bad county year. As usual I was charged with the county year photo montage which I'll post here in case you've not yet seen it.

These days of course I also have Kernow to include in my county listing. We went down quite a lot this year at the beginning but after our summer holiday that was it. The prevailing westerly winds were making for such poor birding in the South West that I didn't even bother with my usual October visit. Still I managed four county ticks: a Caspian Gull (a hard bird to get in Cornwall) at the start of the year; an Avocet in February and then in the May half term a Temminck's Stint and a Hobby (with a Green-winged Teal and a Woodchat Shrike as nice bonus birds). As you can see from this list there are still quite a few relatively common birds that I'm catching up on for my list which gives me some nice targets to chase down whilst I'm there.

Temminck's Stint showing well at Hayle

This August we had a couple of weeks down there and fortunately there were some reasonable winds for me to do a spot of sea-watching down at PG. I had a good couple of sessions seeing nice close views of Cory's and Great Shearwaters as well as plenty of Storm Petrels. However I ended up having one of the two most gripping birding experiences of the year there (see below for the second one) when I left the PG sea-watch an hour and a half before a Fea's Petrel and four Wilson's Petrel's flew past. I still scream internally at the thought of this. Of course the truth is that you can't be there all the time and I'd negotiated with the rest of the family just to have the morning off so I had to leave then but it still really stings.

National Listing
It was a bit of a low key year on the national listing front. As usual I went further afield mostly to add to my UK life list or because I had to do a uni run for one of my two daughters. This year I only managed 8 new UK lifers plus a potential future armchair tick, which is somewhat below my 13 or 14 that I've managed for the previous three years. Now of course as my list grows (I'm around the 400 mark now) there is an inevitable law of diminishing returns and so 8 isn't that bad but it could easily have been a few more if luck had run my way a bit. Still I can't really complain.

Things started well when I went on the January Uni Run back up to Durham. I had the Black Scoter up at Goswick in north Northumberland as a target and after some looking in the wrong spot on the first day I managed to find it the next morning. What's more on the way back down I lucked into a great Black-breasted Thrush, a fantastic bonus bird for the trip.

The next national trip wasn't until March for the return uni run leg where, with nothing of particular note on the radar during what is normally a quiet time of the year, I went via Skinningrove for the Eastern Black Redstart (surely due to be split some time soon).

Skinningrove Eastern Black Redstart
At the start of May I was finally able to put to rest a long-standing personal bogey bird in the form of a Kentish Plover that turned up at Pitsone Reservoir in Bucks. Knowing from past experience that they rarely linger it was a case of dropping everything to go and see it and fortunately I managed finally to tick off this elusive Plover.

Distant views only of my first Kentish Plover
The next national trip was down to Church Norton in June to pay homage to the bona fide DNA-tested Elegant Tern that had turned up. I was rather lucky to find it there on show as soon as I turned up which was really handy

Church Norton Elegant Tern
On the way up to Durham once again in July I stopped off in the Midlands for the wonderful flock of Bee Eaters.

Two of the seven Bee Eaters in the quarry
It wasn't until September that I was able to get my next national tick when a Least Sandpiper turned up at Lodmoor down in Dorset. I was able to connect almost immediately and had great views of the resident Stilt Sandpiper as a bonus.

The Least Sandpiper

Bonus Stilt Sandpiper
The last day of September brought another national tick when I went to pay a visit to a confiding Red-throated Pipit that had taken up residence at Landguard NR. This is a difficult species to catch up with normally so I made sure to make the effort to see this one.

Landguard Red-throated Pipit
Despite the "wrong winds" all autumn, a couple of eastern Mega's did manage to slip through in October. The first was a splendid Rock Thrush that turned up in Wales at Blorenge near where I'd been to see the Marmora's Warbler a few years back.

The light wasn't great on the day that I visited but it was still nice to see a Rock Thrush
The second was a real national Mega of Megas: a Two-barred Greenish Warbler turned up down in Dorset in a small quarry. I needed no further invitation but headed down there on news the next morning to see this wonderful bird well and at close quarters despite the crowds.

Two-barred Greenish Warbler courtesy of Tezzer
The last national birding trip of the year was to Staines Reservoir to see an American Horned Lark. It was reasonably distant on the day that I visited but still possible to make it out well enough. Not a full tick in it's own right at present, I am hoping for an armchair one in due course.

The American Horned Lark showed much better on the day that Ewan Urquhart (c) visited
So there you have it, a relatively modest year of national birding. I'm giving my personal bird of the year award to the Two-barred Greenish Warbler and the Horrendous Dip of the Year goes jointly to missing the Fea's and Wilson's Petrel at Porthgwarra and also not seeing the Scop's Owl on my summer Durham Uni Run.

Other Stuff
Over the last few years I've turned for solace during the summer doldrums to insects and lately flowers. In fact this year I decided to work mostly on Orchids, partially because they're a nice botanical sub-set of a reasonable size and partially because up until now I've not known much about them. So there were lots of trips about the place this year to see various Orchids. The list includes: Lady Orchid with Pasque Flower and Lodden Lily thrown in; Purple, Green-winged and Early-marsh; Narrow-leaved Helleborine, White Helleborine, Fly and Bird's-nest; what were formerly considered to be Narrow-leaved Marsh at Parsonage Moor (but are no longer); Military and Greater Butterfly at Homefield Wood; Lizard at Sydlings Copse; the rare Red Helleborine at Windsor Hill; various marsh loving Orchids at Kenfig dune slacks (but sadly no Fen Orchid); the beautiful Dark-red Helleborine up near Durham; Frog Orchid and Downy Woundwort locally; different Helleborines in various places and finally Violet Helleborine and Gentians at Aston Rowant.

Narrow-leaved Helleborine
Dark-red Helleborine
Military Orchid
Summing It All Up
As usual I kept a tally of my national year list though I make almost no effort to add to it, so just recording what I happen to come across on my various trips. This year came in at a paltry 188 which is quite a low tally. With 8 national lifers, 1 Oxon tick and 4 Kernow ones, there was enough to keep things "ticking over" (sorry!). Looking forward, it's probably going to be more of the same this year with the rest of the Orchids to try for and more birds for my national list. I'd also like to see Scarce Emerald Damselfly which is the last Odonata (excluding the remote Scottish ones) that I have yet to see. Onwards and upwards!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Larking About at Staines

Last week an American Horned Lark was reported at Staines reservoir, having apparently been present just over the road at the (permit only) King George VI Reservoir for some three weeks prior.  Now the Horned/Shore Lark complex is a tricky one as far as species are concerned. Eremophila alpestris is know as  Shore Lark  in this country though called Horned Lark elsewhere in the world and is presently classified as having forty or more sub-species throughout the world. However, the word on the street is that the whole Horned Lark complex may well be split (perhaps in up to six separate species), of which our own Shore Lark (E.a. flava), that winters along our eastern coastline, would be one - see this Birding Frontiers article from a few years back. Now, whilst it was generally agreed that the bird at Staines was definitely an American Horned Lark there was much debate on Bird Forum about which sub-species it was, though the consensus was one of E.a. alpestris, hoyti or praticola. So whilst at present this bird would just be an interesting sub-species tick, there was a possibility that it might become a full species in its own right at some point down the line so at the very least there was an insurance visit required. What's more I am still in two minds about whether to follow strict BOU listing standards or to adopt my own broader standard so it's possible that in the future the Gnome Rarities Committee might accept American Horned Lark as a tick in its own right. Anyway, the bottom line was that I was bored and it wasn't very far away so I went to see it.

I've been to Staines Reservoir a number of time previously. It's a rather bleak place and the birds are often rather far away. Indeed whilst the Lark in question had been showing nice and closely along the causeway bank on the Saturday, by the time I visited on Monday it was firmly ensconced along the western bank of the northern reservoir though fortunately when I visited it wasn't too far away (about 100 yards) so I was able to get reasonable views. In order to see it you either have to stand further away where the fence is low enough to see over or closer but then have to peer through some rather imposing metal fencing. I tried both spots and in the end the peering through the fence wasn't too bad.

The bird was on show constantly in the same spot for the hour or so that I was there. The most striking thing about this bird was the white extended supercilium instead of the yellow of our birds. It also looked plainer and darker though apparently that can be more objective. There's a lot of  discussion about subtle plumage differences on the Bird Forum thread for those who are interested but the white supercilium was by far the most obvious to me.

 Some digiscoped video footage of the Lark

Apart from that there were some distant Pochard, Wigeon and Teal as well as a couple of Egyptian Geese. There were no Black-necked Grebes about for which this reservoir is well known during the winter months, just a few Tufted Ducks bobbing about in the waves. The southern reservoir seemed to have been drained and was showing large areas of exposed mud, looking strikingly bleak.

The partially drained southern reservoir
A proper photo of the Staines American Horned Lark taken on Saturday when it was on the causeway shore,
courtesy of Ewan Urquhart, showing it's striking white supercilium and generally darker appearance

After an hour or so I felt that I'd seen all that I was going to see so wandered back along the causeway and headed for home. So, all in all a nice bird to see at a reasonably close distance to Oxford and the possibility of an armchair tick down the line. All in all, not a bad way to pass a Monday morning.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Autumn Local Birds for Local People

There have been a few outings which I've been meaning to write about for a while now, all local stuff but still worth recording in my "diary". The first was a rather nice Water Pipit which turned up at Farmoor at the start of the month. The reservoir is the best site in the county for this species and I've seen a few over the years there but with nothing else happening one Saturday late afternoon and with the light already starting to fade, I hurried along the causeway and all the way around to the north west corner of Farmoor 1 (basically about as far away from the car park as it's possible to get) where I spent some time watching this rather nice bird in the company of just one other person. The light was rather poor by this time but I managed to take some record-shot video footage

Farmoor Water Pipit

The next bird of interest came along a couple of weeks later when a Scaup was reported at Farmoor. At the time someone commented (on the Oxon Birding Blog), asking why it wasn't in fact a Lesser Scaup though I'm not sure how many people saw this comment (I certainly didn't). The next day someone e-mailed me with some more photos, taken at the end of the day in poor light of the bird but at least they were done at close range and the bird certainly looked like a Lesser to me. I forwarded them to "Lew" (Ian Lewington our esteemed county recorder) and he agreed. The word was put out and I mentally prepared for an outing to Farmoor the next morning, particularly since Lesser Scaup was a bird that I still needed for the county. The last records had been a couple of birds in 2007, one at Appleford and one at Sonning Eye GP, both reasonably long-stayers but as I'd only just started birding back then I wasn't doing a county list at all and hadn't bothered to go and see either of them.

The next day rather than being there at first light I waited on news, partially as I've never been a huge fan of the early start and partially as my VLW was away at present so I was left looking after our eleven year old son so I didn't want to leave him alone in the house for longer than necessary. I'd more or less given up hope by mid morning when there was still no news but eventually it was found, in the south west corner of Farmoor II. I therefore hurriedly set off, parking at Lower Whitely Farm to minimise the walk and a short while later I was looking at my first Oxon Lesser Scaup. The great and the good of the county (well at least those lower down the county listing table) were all there and we passed the time in some general chit chat and banter whilst photographing the bird.

The "Lesser Scaup"
All was fine until later on that day I got word that Lew was starting to have doubts about the bird. Apparently there were certainly things which didn't quite tally so he was going to take a look for himself then next day. Anyway, to cut a long story short, it turned out that it was actually a hybrid (either Scaup x Lesser Scaup or Scaup x Tufted) rather than the real deal. The main reasons why were:
1. it was too large, being larger than the accompanying Tufted Ducks rather than about the same size
2. the vermiculations on its back were too fine and didn't become progressively coarser along its back as they should do
3. most importantly of all it didn't have the correct wing pattern of much fainter wing bars on the outer half of the wing. This is a well-known diagnostic for Lesser Scaup though I hadn't personally had time to check it out during my relatively brief visit.

So the Lew giveth and the Lew taketh away again and I still "need" Lesser Scaup for Oxon. Oh well!

The damming evidence from Ewan Urquart's blog showing that there's too much white on the outer half of the wing bar
The third local bird to report is of course the Hawfinch. All birders with any interest in what's happening nationally must by now be aware of the irruption of continental Hawfinches into this country this autumn. Indeed I'd been keeping my eyes to the skies for some time around my patch at Port Meadow though so far in vain. I'd even visited nearby Wytham Wood on three occasions as they have a large Hornbeam plantation there though to no avail. Finally, a reliable spot was found in the county where they could be seen though how they were discovered in the first place is quite a mystery as it's a very unremarkable location down a minor road off the A40 near Eynsham Hall at Barnard's Gate. Anyway, I've made a couple of trips there where, in the company of a number of other birders, both local and from further afield, both times I've had distant views of several of this pleasingly massive Finch as it perched in the tree tops a good 150 yards away. I did try to take some digiscoped photos though on both occasions the wind, the poor light and the long distance has meant that they've been little more than record shots.

Strictly record-shot quality snaps of the Hawfinches
I still live in hope of seeing a fly-over on my patch and with any luck a better location might be found where closer views can be had. Still its very nice to have this bird graving our county with its presence for a while.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

No Holds (Two)-Barred in Dorest

After a rather lean year on the twitching front things are suddenly coming alive for me this autumn with my second twitch in just five days. I was still basking in the fading warm glow of my successful Rock Thrush twitch last week when news broke on Tuesday of a Two-barred Greenish Warbler down in Dorset. This bird had originally been identified as a possible Arctic at last light on Sunday though with Storm Orphelia bearing down on the country it had meant that it wasn't checked out the next day. However, on Tuesday the legendary Brett Spencer went to see if it was still about and managed to re-identify it as a Two-barred Greenish Warbler with news breaking mid afternoon. Now this species is currently a subspecies (Phylloscopus trochiloides plumbeitarsus) of Greenish Warbler (P. trochiloides) here in the UK. However, with the adoption in the new year of the IOC species list by the UK, it will be elevated to full species status (P. plumbeitarsus) so it was offering the dangling carrot of an impending full species tick. What's more, with only half a dozen or so prior sightings in this country, it was a genuine Mega so definitely worth making a bit of an effort for. That evening, DL messaged me to ask if I was interested in going for it on news the next day so we arranged to head down there together if it was still about. The only possible fly in the ointment was the weather which was forecast to be rainy and misty for the morning though at least the poor conditions would mean that it was less likely to do a bunk overnight.

The next morning it was reported as still present surprisingly early (it was barely light outside here in Oxford) so I arranged to pick up DL from south Oxford in the Gnome Mobile and set off. The trouble was that road works in the centre of Oxford meant that I had to head around the ring road for the pick-up and the rush hour traffic was horrendous so it took absolutely ages to get around there. Still, eventually we had rendezvous'd and we were heading down the A34. Now, I'd been to the Studland Peninsula just once before to Durlston CP for Lullworth Skipper and that time I'd thought the Sat Nav route, which had taken me through Poole and Bournemouth, had been a rather poor choice so this time I followed my usual Lodmoor route on the A31 until it intersects the A350 which I took southwards, thereby neatly avoiding all the built-up areas. This worked really well and so it was that some time after 11 a.m. we were heading down the worryingly misty roads leading to Renscombe Farm near St. Aldhelm's Head. Due to the large expected numbers, a dedicated parking field had been laid on in which there must have been well over fifty parked cars as we turned in, paid our £2 fee and got tooled up. Then it was a twenty minute walk southwards down the track in the mist, both of us worrying if the bird would be easy to see in the mist. We asked a returning birder who told us that he'd seen it just three times in the two hours that he was there which was acceptable, though not as good as one might hope for.

Finally we came to the twitch crowd and had to work out where to stand. This wasn't as easy as it sounds as the actual viewing area was rather small and people were standing several deep. The problem was that one was looking down into the trees from our vantage point so standing behind someone made things really difficult. I found myself standing behind someone who wasn't too tall and DL headed further to one side to carve out a space of his own.

A rather small viewing area given the numbers

The atmosphere was rather tense as lots of people (including myself) had yet to see the bird. After about ten minutes, someone to my right called it out and the people over there watched it for a bit though from my angle it was impossible to see and I could only listen in helpless frustration to the instructions. Fortunately a little while later the person in front of me decided that he'd seen enough and I was able to take his spot right at the front. The view before me consisted of a row of Field Maples with a couple of gaps in them ("the left gap" and the "right gap" as they were called out), with an Ash tree behind on the left and a couple of tall Sycamores at the back.

The Twitch Arena - Field Maples to the front, Ash & Sycamores to the back
After a while I heard a familiar voice and turned to see EU and KC behind me and as others turned to leave they came to stand beside me. Shortly after that TS turned up so it was an excellent turn-out for the county. There was the usual large twitch tensions going on with one birder nearby struggling to see much and continuously asking in a loud voice "what's that?" and "where are you looking?" until someone snapped and explained as if to a child, where all the key locations were. After that, he kept quiet. EU kept making comments under his breath about the annoyances of the other birders and I had to keep from laughing at some of the things that he said.

Another twitch photo courtesy of Joe Tobias (Twitter: @ja_tobias) showing me (with my fluorescent hood lining) at the front!
There was plenty of movement with several Chiffies moving about and a really showy Firecrest which gave excellent views at the front. A good half an hour had passed so far with only a couple of glimpses of what had apparently been the bird though I'd not personally seen it well enough to be sure. Then suddenly someone called it in one of the Field Maples at the front and suddenly out it popped, showing cripplingly well right in front of us in some bare branches. Several people let slip a stifled cheer at this point, relieved finally to have seen it and the mood of the crowd changed markedly with the release of all the tension. Indeed one person's audible relief was so marked that EU quipped that "he was having an orgasm!".

Some cracking photos (especially give the prevailing conditions) courtesy of Tezzer

The bird was a gorgeously striking thing, superficially like a cross between a Yellow-browed and an Greenish. It had a rather Greenish-like head and super, with a strikingly pale bill, especially the lower half, a fairly long primary projection with a really broad and wide lower wing bar and a fairly reasonable upper one: not quite Yellow-browed proportions though not far off. However, there were none of the darker colouring on the wings that a Yellow-browed might have and the tertials were plain and unmarked. So in reality it was most like a Greenish Warbler but with much more pronounced wing bars. Once one had got ones eye in, it was possible to pick the rather unique colour combination out instantly in flight from the less contrasty Chiffies that were also present.

After that initial show stopper, the bird showed fairly regularly and seemed to be doing a fairly small circuit right in front of us so that we all got excellent views. I tried half-heartedly to take a photo with my superzoom though the light was very poor and a small phyllosc flitting about is not easy for a rather slow-to-respond bridge camera so in the end I gave up and just enjoyed watching the bird. Eventually I started to feel rather tired so went to sit on a nearby wall and to have my packed lunch. DL came to join me and we discussed whether there was time to nip over to Portland but in the end decided that it wouldn't be worth it given that I had to be back by 6 pm. So instead we went back for seconds and again got some more great views of the bird which was showing every few minutes by now. KC had had to head back to the car early because of back problems but the rest of the Oxon crew eventually decided that they'd had their fill so after posing for a squad selfie we all walked back together, chatting and gossiping as we went, all in the best of moods after our grandstand views.

Successful Oxon Squad Selfie

Back at the car park we parted ways and headed off into the mist of Dorset's back roads. I drove back the same way though the mist now seemed to have crept up from just the peninsula to the whole of the South East and it was very gloomy all the way back. After dropping DL off I then had to endure half an hour of traffic jams just to drive the short distance back to my house. Not that I cared, having had such a good day out. Back at Casa Gnome it was time for the usual celebratory cup of tea and a chance to catch up with the family. It had been a grand day out.