Sunday, 21 December 2008

Some more local sightings

With the year drawing to a close I've not been on any major birding trips since Slimbridge but there have been a couple of local trips to report.

I've still been going to my local patch, Port Meadow, regularly and often late in the day in order to look at the gull roost which can get quite large. Recently I have a very productive day when the flood waters were rather high and there was only a narrow strip of grass between the floods and the river itself. This meant that all the usual waders (black-tailed godwits, ruff and redshank) were concentrated in this narrow area. However when I started scanning I almost immediately picked up on a lovely spotted redshank which was feeding very actively along this strip.

A close up of the spotted redshank, taken at dusk with high ISO

The spotted redshank with a ruff and a pair of black-tailed godwits.

A video of the feeding spotted redshank. To view in high quality mode, click here and select "Watch in High Quality".

Having taken some video and digiscoped shots of the spotshank I then did a brief scan of the rest of the Meadow floods. To my amazement I also found a pair of Bewick's swans out in the middle of the floods.
I took some video footage but they were rather distant and it is best viewed in high quality mode only. Click here and select "Watch in High Quality".

There have usually been one or two yellow-legged gulls in the roost on the Meadow, standing out with their pristine white heads, their rich yellow bills and their immaculate darker mantles. Scanning through the gulls I managed to find one this evening.

A video-grab of a yellow-legged gull in the roost.

So all in all an excellent evening trip to the local patch with some cracking birds.

A few days later a red-head smew was reported on Dix Pit in Stanton Harcourt. This location used to be one of the top gull spots in the county and was a well know Caspian Gull hot spot. However, due to new EU regulations steps are now being taken to discourage gulls from rubbish tips (presumably to avoid the spread of disease) and falcons are now being flown at this site, resulting in much reduced gull activity. I took my two-year old son L with me to the Pit to see if I could connect with the smew. This worked out rather well as he really enjoyed watching all the huge trucks coming and going whilst I watched the distant birds. I managed to locate the smew quite quickly though it was on the far side of the water mid-way between the two view points. I did have a go at videoing it but it came out as little more than a distant blob. I also found 5 red-crested pochards (4 drakes and a duck), another species for which Dix Pit is well known. I then turned my attention to the flock of a hundred or so gulls out in the middle of the water. There was a white-headed gull in amongst them which stood out. In addition, rather than having the dark mantle that one would expect from a yellow-legged, it was much paler. It was a long way away but I did think that it could have been an adult Caspian gull and even took some video footage of it but it was not conclusive even after running it by my gull guru.

A possible Caspian Gull on Dix Pit

To watch this video in high quality mode click here and select "Watch in High Quality".

So no new year ticks but some nice local birds to see within the county and the smew is a new county tick for me.

Friday, 19 December 2008

A Day at Slimbridge

A few months ago I joined the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust as I feel that it is a worthy cause to support and it also means that I get in free to places like Slimbridge. Despite having joined I had not yet actually visited any WWT locations so with the year coming to an end and my still needing white-fronted goose for my year list, coupled with the fact that I had a voucher for a free WWT "book of the month" which expired at the end of December, I decided that it was time to get down to Slimbridge for a visit. In addition to the "sure-thing" white-fronted goose tick, a bittern had been "showing well" the previous day from the Zeiss hide so it was worth while putting in some time staring at reeds in the off-chance of it showing again today.

The weather was rather overcast though mild compared to the recent cold spell. As I pulled into the car park after a little over an hour's drive I saw large flocks of lapwings and golden plover with a few dunlin mixed in, flying around overhead: something had obviously put them up. Never having visited before, I picked up a map and navigated my way towards the hides. There are three main areas with wild birds in: to the north west there are a series of hides (Martin Smith, Robbie Garnett and Stephen Kirk) overlooking the Tack Piece (a large field with scrapes, pools and a few reeds) , the Knott hide overlooking the Knott pool, ending with the Holden Tower which overlooks the Dumbles (a large grassy area with a few pools) and the Severn estuary. To the south west there are a few hides (Lathbury, Zeiss and Kingfisher) overlooking some scrapes and reeds and to the south east there are the South Lakes consisting of shallow lakes and scrapes with two hides. I decided to start off at the Holden tower to get the geese, and then to work my way around the reserve. Once I had the geese I was going to be happy to spend a fair amount of time trying for the bittern as I knew from the Slimbridge web reports that there wasn't likely to be much else of great interest around.

After a short walk I found myself at the Holden tower, wrestling with trying to set up my tripod in amongst the tall fixed stools there - I really must get myself a hide clamp. From the right side of the tower it looked out onto the Tack Piece and this is where all the geese were. Furthest away at the back of the field were the white-fronted geese, who seemed a bit shy. Closer in were a flock of 100+ barnacle geese, which I presume were wild and mixed in amongst them were some canadas and a few grey-lags. Some of the Tack Piece scrapes could also be seen and there were several Bewick's swans there (a Slimbrige speciality), some curlews and lots of lapwings. I was told that a pair of hunting peregrines had put most of the waders up (which must have been what I saw as I arrived) but scanning through them I could see a few redshanks feeding close by and the odd dunlin still around. Scanning across the Dumbles soon revealed the culprit: one of the peregrines sitting in the middle of the field, probably digesting its catch.

Overview of the geese: white-fronted at the back, canada and barnacle in the front. Note that the light was really poor and the birds often distant so this and many of the other photos were taken at high ISO settings.

Some of the white-fronted geese coming in to land.

Grazing barnacle geese.

After leaving the Holden tower I worked my way along the other hides which gave different views over the Tack Piece. I managed to find a spotted redshank on the scrape and further down there were large numbers of ducks: tufted, pochard, wigeon, teal and some pintails. Opposite the Robbie Garnett hide were some bird feeders with mostly blue and great tits, some chaffinches and greenfinches and plenty of moorhens on the grass. A water rail had been reported there on the web-site on a number of occasions recently but I couldn't see any sign of it.

Having secured my goose tick I next walked around towards the south west end to see if the bittern was about. I popped first into the Lathbury hide which overlooked some scrapes. On view were plenty of ducks and lots of standing lapwing and dunlin. Next on to the Zeiss hide which overlooked some reeds close by as well as some more distant pools. There I met a fellow birder camped out in the corner who had seen the bittern some three-quarters of an hour ago. It had been well hidden in the reeds but he'd even managed some digiscoped shots of it. Encouraged by this, I set up camp next to him and ate my packed lunch whilst chatting to him about digiscoping and scanning the reeds. After a while I saw something move in the reeds but initially couldn't make it out. Then I realised that it was the top of the bittern's head. I called it out to fellow watchers and then began the difficult process of explaining to the others where it was in amongst the mass of reeds. After a while I even manged to get my scope on it which is very difficult given the comparatively narrow field of view and even managed a few digiscoped shots myself. I stayed and watched it for a while before moving on to the south lake.

Spot the bittern!

The south lake has two hides: the Hogarth hide and the South lake observatory. Judging from the web-site reports there are usually a few waders around but today from either hide all I could see were a large number of lapwings and a few ducks. Accordingly I decided to make my way back to the north west hides for a last look before heading back home.

A Bewick's swan and a curlew on the Tack Piece.

There was not much different from my earlier visit to these hides. In fact the peregrine was still sitting in the same place in the Dumbles so it obviously had a big meal to digest. Someone said that they'd seen the water rail by the feeders ten minutes previously so I waited a bit but it didn't show. I therefore worked my way back towards the main visitor reception, picked up my free book of the month (The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of European and British Birds) and headed back home.

Two of the redshank that were on the Tack Piece

A pleasant trip to visit this fascinating place and a couple more year ticks. In fact the bittern was yet another technical lifer (where I couldn't remember whether I'd seen it as a boy). This brings my year total to 222 and tantalisingly close to my target of 225. In addition the barnacle geese means that a dodgy escapee tick from earlier in the year could be legitimised.

2008 Year List:

221: white-fronted goose

222: bittern (technical lifer)

Sunday, 14 December 2008

A Dorchester Long-tailed Duck & a Farmoor Redpoll

I've not been on any major birding trips recently but just over a week ago it was a lovely sunny but frosty day and I fancied a birding trip out. There'd been a long-tailed duck on a pit in Dorchester for a few days and as I had missed the one at Appleford GP's earlier I decided that it would be nice to go and have a look. I was able to negotiate with my VLW (very lovely wife) that I could go without L our two year old son so I set off and was soon at the appropriate pit which was located down Drayton Lane.

As I arrived I met a fellow birder just getting out of his car who was also looking for the same bird. He thought that it might be on the pit next door but I was pretty sure I had the right pit and so we started looking together for it. There were plenty of diving ducks about: pochards, tufted duck, some goldeneye as well as a few dabblers around the fringes: mostly shoveler and a few wigeon. There were also quite a few canada geese and plenty of the ubiquitous coot about. A flock of 8 or so siskins flew over calling noisly, which was nice to see. We worked our way along the pit until about half way down when my companion, who still thought it was the other pit, decided that he would go and try over there. I went on further on my own and towards the end I encountered a couple coming back the other way, who told me that the long-tailed duck was right down at the end of the pit. Encouraged by this I continued on to the end where I found a clearing where I could see out clearly. After several minutes of fruitless scanning I finally found the bird. It was diving frequently and it was hard work to get any decent digiscoping shots, especially as it was largely in a shaded area with lots of reflections on the water but I did manage a couple of ok shots. The other birder returned from the neighbouring pit, I showed him where the bird was and he and I watched it together for a while.

The Dorchester long-tailed duck.

This bird didn't represent a new year tick for me as I'd already seen quite a few on the sea at Easter up in Fife, but it was nice to get out on a crisp winter's morning and to see such an uncommon bird for Oxfordshire.

A few day's later I went down to Farmoor, once more to try to find a redpoll that so far has been eluding me. I was only intending to be out for a couple of hours but in the end I was out all morning. Still it's always nice to visit Farmoor, especially when there are some good birds there at the moment such as the two first winter scaup and the two great northern divers. I parked in my usual spot in Lower Whitely wood and walked along the road towards the farm, keeping an eye and ear out for anything interesting. Just through the gate there were a number of finches but mostly green with some gold as well. There were far fewer redwings and fieldfares around than usual as I made my way along the path towards the pump station and Pinkhill which was supposed to be the hot spot for redpolls. When I got there I scanned carefully but all I found was a nice pair of siskins feeding in an alder tree.

I next made my way up the bank of Farmoor 1 to the tufted duck flock to have a look for the scaup. I soon managed to find them and had a go at digiscoping though the light was not very good. Below is a passable shot of the male.

The first winter drake scaup with a drake tufted duck

Along the shore of F1 were also 7 dunlin and a couple of redshank. I next decided to walk over to the sludge pits on the north side of F1 as some redpolls had been seen there recently. It was a bit of a trek and it reaped no reward. Retracing my steps I was back at Pinkhill when I met a fellow birder who was carrying an SLR with a good sized lens. He'd just been trying to photo a tree creeper that flew my way before he could get it. We also saw a nice male bullfinch but once again he couldn't get a proper shot. I asked but he'd not seen any redpolls about. We parted company and I headed on towards F2 in the direction of the car.

On F2 I looked out for the great northern divers and soon managed to spot one of them diving in the middle of the water. I did have an half-hearted attempt to photograph it but the waiting time whilst it was underwater was rather long and it was getting late so I gave up. Back down in the south-west corner I saw a common sandpiper, a redshank and a few of the dunlin but they flew off before I could photograph any of them.

Disappointed at not having seen any redpolls I made my way back along the road towards the wood. Where the road bends to the left towards the wood there was a nice flock of goldfinches and as I walked I idly watched them until I noticed a couple of brown birds with slight white wing bars in amongst them. At that point I was on full alert and scanned carefully in order to confirm my suspicions that they were indeed the redpolls that I'd been looking for. They were feeding actively right by the road side so I positioned myself up on the opposite side of the road and crouching down I continued to watch them. They didn't seem too flighty so I set up my scope and rather than getting my digiscoping attachment out, just held up the camera to the eye piece. The result came out surprisingly well.

At last my lesser redpoll for the year!

So another year tick from my lesser redpoll which brings up 220. It's looking increasingly unlikely that I am going to make 225 but I am more than pleased with my efforts which have far exceeded my expectations for my first year list.

2008 Year List
220: lesser redpoll

Saturday, 6 December 2008

A Bedfordshire Slavonian Grebe

I'd noticed that there had been a slavonian grebe reported in Bedfordshire recently at Brogborough Lake. Given that this was reasonably close to where my sister-in-law lives, I suggested to my VLW (very lovely wife) that she might wish to pay her a visit and that I could drive her over there and go on to find the grebe whilst they went out shopping. As this plan suited all concerned we set off on Thursday at around 10:15am, arriving at the sister's house at around 11am. After a brief spot of elevenses, I left them to their shopping trip and departed on what should have been a short 20 minute drive down the A5 and along the A421 into Beds. I'd been that way earlier this year for the red-footed falcon so was reasonably confident that I knew the way. However, I'd not reckoned on a huge traffic jam at the junction where the A421 joins the M1 and I waited there for a tedious 45 minutes in near-stationary traffic before finally getting past the junction and arriving shortly thereafter at Brogborough Lake.

I'd not been to the lake before and from what I'd read there was no obvious access or viewing points so I was going to have to improvise. The first thing that struck me as I drove past it was how large it was. It was more than half a mile in length by perhaps a quarter of a mile in width. The prospect of finding one small grebe there with no proper access was a little daunting. I turned down a road behind the lake that lead to Lidlington and as I went I looked out for viewing points along the east side (where the bird had been reported). I came across a gate and stopped to have a look. The reasonably strong wind was coming into the shore at that point and the sun was also shining that way so viewing conditions were far from ideal and a quick scan revealed not much at all. I headed round the corner where I remembered from the map that there was supposed to be a footpath by a house that lead down to the lake. I got out and had a good look for it but could find no obvious footpath at all.

I was starting to feel somewhat frustrated, after my long time in traffic I was now finding it difficult actually to see the lake at all! I carried on driving round the lake and eventually found a gate where one could overlook the west end of the water. I set up my scope and a thorough search revealed a large (100+) number of pochards, plenty of tufted ducks, some rather smart goldeneye's, a couple of little grebes that gave me pause for thought, some great crested grebes, lots of coots and a few gulls, some common's in amongst them. I could only see a small portion of the lake from my viewing point so I drove round to the west side where there was a layby which would offer better viewing.

At the layby I carefully parked on high-curbed verge so that turning trucks could get by and set up my scope. From here I could see most of the western half of the lake though a thorough scan didn't reveal anything other than what I'd already seen. I found a track leading along the north shore and I started to walk along it, stopping periodically to scan around. After a few minutes I had gone far enough to be able to see the east end of the lake and round into the bay at the south-east corner. Towards this end there were several feeding grebes and at this point I started to look more carefully. I was viewing at a long distance at x60 magnification and at that range it was not easy to identify subtle detail. Several times I found a grebe that looked promising only to decide that it was actually just another great-crested. This did lead me to ask myself how I might know the slavonian once I saw it and I came to the conclusion that at that range I was looking for a bird intermediate in size between a little and great-crested grebe and with not such a proportionately long neck as a great crested and with less white on it. I carried on scanning at my long distance until right in the south-east corner, a few yards from the bank I found a bird that fitted all my long-range identification points. I could even compare it's size to some near-by great crested grebes and it was definitely smaller. One could just make out the clean dividing line between the black on it's head and the paler cheeks so it wasn't going to be a black-necked grebe. Confident of my identification I even took a few digiscope record shots though at that range they came out as little more than blobs.

I decided to go back round to that side of the lake and take a closer look now that I knew where to look. Back at the gate over there I found another parked car and saw a birder walking along the bank close by where I knew the bird to be. Hoping that it hadn't been spooked I started to scan. From this end I was looking into the sun and the water by the bank was partly in shadow so conditions were far from ideal but at least I knew where to look. I was still scanning when the other birder came back, saying that he'd not seen anything. I told him that I'd seen the bird from across the lake and whilst we were talking I found a grebe in my scope. Confusingly this was a great crested and I was just starting to have doubts when the slav grebe surfaced close by and I was able to point it out to my companion. We weren't able to view it for long before it moved into the deeply shaded section where it couldn't really be made out at all.

At that point my VLW phoned to say that she was back and wanting to know where was I, so I decided that it was time to head back to pick her up. The journey back was slightly complicated by my finding out that the junction that I'd used to exit the A5 was a restricted one and I couldn't get onto it so I had to improvise another route. Still I managed to get back ok and we made it back home just in time to pick up our younger daughter from school.

I feel that I earned my tick as it was really hard work finding the bird. That now means that I have all three rare grebes for the year about which I am most pleased.

2008 Year List

219: Slavonian Grebe

Saturday, 29 November 2008

American Wigeon & A Pair of Farmoor Scaup

This Thursday just gone I had to get up unfeasibly early at 05:30am to take my eldest daughter K off to catch a coach for a school trip. I was thinking that as I was up I could go and do a spot of birding somewhere local such as Farmoor. I hadn't, though, quite realised just how late it gets light now so I was sitting back at home after the drop-off twiddling my thumbs waiting for it to get light before finally setting off at around 07:15 as the first traces of light were in the sky. I wanted to go to Farmoor partly to catch up with the two first winter scaup that were there and also to have another go at looking for redpolls which somehow have still eluded me so far this year.

I arrived just as it was getting light and was soon walking along the reservoir edge, thinking how nice it was to be up at first light. I saw a barn owl hunting by Lower Whitely farm, looking rather ghostly in the half-light. At that point a car turned up, driving along the perimeter road and it turned out to be a fellow birder whom I've met a few times on Port Meadow recently when we were looking for the American Golden Plover. He kindly offered to show me the Scaup and when I mentioned the redpoll also said that he would show me the redpoll "hot-spot". We soon pulled up by the Pinkill hide and walked up the slope to the west shore of Farmoor I. This was where the flock of tufted ducks roosted and we started to scan through them for the two scaup. Being first winters, the differences between the scaup and the tufted ducks were rather subtle: on the male there are some pale patches on the upper body where the full vermiculation would be on an adult; the female has the large white area around the base of the bill but when sleeping with her head tucked in it's not that easy and one has to rely on jizz and head shape. With help from my companion we soon found them both - not year ticks for me but Oxon firsts though.

We next retraced our steps back to Pinkill: the redpoll hot-spot turns out to be the path between Pinkhill and the Pump Station. We went slowly and carefully along this route but to no avail though at the pump station we did manage to hear a brambling calling from within the bushes. At this point my companion decided to continue on whereas I elected to retrace my steps to see if I could find the redpolls. I first hung around for a bit and managed a brief glimpse of the brambling. Walking back I managed to see a siskin and countless redwings and fieldfares but still no redpoll. Could this end up being my bogey bird of the year? Anyway, I walked back towards to car along the reservoir, seeing a redshank on the north shore of Farmoor II and one of the two great northern divers in the distance in the middle of the reservoir. Back at the car I heard the distinctive call of a marsh tit and managed a brief glimpse of it flitting around in the surrounding trees. I have now managed to see the marsh tit in the same location on three consecutive occasions. A very nice way to start the day with a spot of birding and I headed off home and to work.

Later that day I saw on Bird Guides that the american wigeon at Lower Farm GP had been seen again. I'd not heard anything more about it after my dip last Saturday and it's subsequent re-appearance (of course) on Sunday so had assumed that it had moved on. I wondered whether this had meant that it had been there all this time but since everyone had now seen it (apart from me) they hadn't bothered to report it. Anyway, I was thinking that another Friday birding trip was due to see if I could connect with this bird at the second attempt. Consequently the next day at around 1pm I was heading south down the A34 again to Lower Farm. As I was on my journey a text came through from Bird Guides reporting that the bird was showing well so it was with some optimism that I arrived at the Lower Farm GP car park. There were no other birders present which meant that I wasn't going to have the bird handed to me on a plate and that I would have to do some work to find it for myself. I set up my scope in the hide and started systematically scanning all the birds. The GP has a number of part-submerged trees and small islands which means that there is a lot of cover behind which vagrant wigeons can hide so it was possible that it might be out of sight but after scanning about three quarters of the way around I found the bird out in the open near the back swimming around quite fast and seeming rather at home. It was unmistakable even at a distance and I immediately set up my digiscoping gear and started to take photos. This proved somewhat troublesome as the light was very poor (so I had to go up to ISO 400 to get any kind of shutter speed) and the bird was a good 150m away if not more. Despite this I managed to get a few half decent shots, the best of which I've included here.

The American Wigeon with a Eurasian Wigeon for comparison.

As well as this handsome vagrant there were also a number of ruddy duck looking smart in their winter plumage. It was nice to see these pretty and unfairly persecuted ducks. Apart from the aforementioned birds there were a few pochards around, a grey wagtail, a kingfisher, some cormorants, great crested and little grebes, some shoveler and some gadwall. One of the latter was rather close to the shore so I took the opportunity, after the American Wigeon had gone behind an island, to photograph it.

A gadwall close to the shore

As I was leaving I met a fellow birder just arriving. He asked me nervously whether the bird was still there as he'd dipped twice before. I told him that it was but that it had gone behind an island so I hope that it came out again for him.

A very pleasant lunch-time trip to connect with this nice bird and another year (and indeed life) tick for me. Only a month to go now to the end of the year and I still would like to get lesser redpoll, merlin and white-fronted goose. It's probably going to be unlikely that I'll actually reach 225 unless a few good local birds turn up as I have a self-imposed limit of about an hour (or two hours at most) on how far I'm prepared to drive to see stuff. Also this time of year is rather busy and it's not so easy to find the time to get away so I may only have one or two more non-local trips left.

2008 Year List

218: American Wigeon.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Combe Wood Return Match & Looking for An American Wigeon

It seems to be becoming something of a habit that I go on a birding trip on Friday's with the last three weeks having produced some excellent little trips. Anyway, this Friday it seemed rude not to have a try for the first winter drake American Wigeon that had been reported yesterday afternoon at Lower Farm GP's in Berks near Newbury. Adopting my usual policy of always liking to have a back-up bird if possible, I realised that this was pretty close to Combe Woode, where I'd failed miserably to see a Willow Tit in the summer. Having been told that the autumn was much better I thought that I'd have another crack at it.

Heading down the A34 I was just approaching the turn-off for Newbury only to discover that the road had been closed and that the next obvious turn off was completely full of stationary cars so there'd obviously been some kind of accident. Thinking on my feet (or at the wheel rather) I decided to go straight on to Combe Wood, and to come back for the Wigeon, hopefully after the traffic had cleared. Having been there once before and having swotted up on the directions I found my way through the maze of back roads without incident, pausing only for the large number of pheasants that were running around in the road at various places. I parked by the church, put on my walking boots and taking just my bins and not my scope, started walking up the hill. By this time I was very confident in recognising the call and I kept a close ear out for birds as I went. There was precious little calling as I went up the hill and I was starting to think that I was going to blank again when I came to the top of the hill where there is a clearing and a line of trees going off to the left. Here there were loads of fieldfares in the trees all chattering away loudly. There were also some redwings in amongst them though in fewer numbers. At that moment I also heard the distinctive call of a tit which I immediately recognised as a Willow. I walked closer to the trees and soon saw the bird fly into a nearby tree. Raising my bins I was immediately able to see that it was indeed a lovely Willow Tit though without the call I wouldn't have easily told it from a Marsh at that distance though it did look rather untidy compared to the comparatively neat Marsh Tits that I'd seen earlier that week at Farmoor. I heard a second bird calling and spent a few minutes following the pair as they moved through the trees and hedges before they went out of sight. Well pleased with connecting with these birds I was starting to head back down when I heard the distinctive call of a couple of ravens overhead and looked up to see a pair flying low over the trees not far away. I am given to understand that these are comparatively rare in Berks though they are seen at nearby Walbury Hill from time to time.

Pleased with this success, I got back to the car and contemplated my journey over to Lower Farm GP's. A quick study of the map showed that I could most easily get there on the A343 which avoided the A4 altogether and so it was that some 20 minutes later I turned up at the gravel pits. There I met a fellow birder leaving the hide who informed me that there was no sign of the bird and that some people had been there for hours looking. My usual policy in such situations (á lá Combe Meadows in Glos. for the stilt sandpiper) is to go and have a quick look for myself but not to hang around too long if others have already put in the hours to no avail. A quick scan round revealed some normal wigeon, a few pochards, shoveler, gadwall, great crested and little grebes and a few gulls but no rarities. I therefore didn't stay long but made my way back to Oxford, pleased to have at least connected with my "reserve bird".

One more tick for the year list, and in fact Willow Tit was one of my target winter birds, the others being Jack Snipe (now seen), Redpoll (still proving elusive) and Merlin.

2008 Year List

217: Willow Tit

Friday, 14 November 2008

Tundra Bean Geese and a Caspian Gull

Friday lunch-time I was contemplating a lunch-time trip over to Farmoor to try to connect with some redpolls which, despite being told are abundant this season are proving rather elusive to me still. However a text message from Bird Guides just before lunch saying that a family of four Tundra Bean Geese had turned up at Hillesden in Bucks soon changed my mind and I knocked together a quick packed lunch, threw my gear in the car and headed off north on the 45 minute journey from Oxford up to Hillesden.

Hillesden is a funny little place: its basically some farm land with two pools and a wader scrape that I got to know last winter as there were some over-wintering whooper swans there. Having been there three times already this year I was able to navigate myself straight there and hurried over to the pools. There I met up with well known Bucks birder Lee Evans who was busy looking at the birds which were fortunately still present. I quickly set up my digiscoping gear and spent the next half an hour or so taking some photos of the party which, according to Lee, consisted of a male, a female and two juveniles.

The male, female and two juveniles

The family group
The male and darker female together
A close up of the male

After about half an hour a low-flying helicoper spooked the birds and they flew a few yards to the neighbouring wader scrape where they were partially obscured by some bankside vegtation so I could take no more photos. At this point Lee and I left, with me looking out (unsuccessfully) for redpolls on the walk back to the car.

When I got back home I got a call from the Oxon county recorder saying that someone had reported seeing the American Golden Plover back on Port Meadow again. I said that I'd not been down there that morning but would go to take a look. There was only about three-quarters of an hour of day light left but I took L, our now increasingly long-suffering and somewhat reluctant two year old son, in his all-terrain buggy out onto the Meadow. The extent of the floods meant that presently it was actually easiest to view the birds from across the river as there was only a narrow strip of grass between the much-extended floods and the river. Whilst L sat in his buggy and complained, I scanned the plover flocks but to no avail. I did notice a spectacularly large number of roosting gulls which I estimated must have been in the region of 5000 birds - it was quite a sight.

The next day I was back down there early along with a large number of local birders, all keen to see the birds. Needless to say there was no sign of it but there was a rather nice white-headed gull which I thought, despite being no gull expert, looked like an adult Caspian gull. I was delighted susequently to have the ID confirmed by the county recorder (who is a gull expert) when he turned up. I was really pleased about this as earlier this year I had rather optimistically ticked caspian off after finding what I thought was a likely looking candidate at Dix Pit but I have susequently learnt that there is far more to it than I realised and with hind sight it was a rather dodgy tick.

A record shot of the Port Meadow Caspian gull

A close up of the underside of the P10 primary. I have since learnt to look for the following: note the extensive white tip and pale base to the inner web, which extends well forward; the resulting pattern comprises a black lozenge within a whitish field.

One more tick for the year list and a rather dodgy caspian tick properly confirmed. I was pleased to have connected with a comparatively rare goose (outside a few east coast locations). I am also surprised with just how well I have been doing on the goose front with regards to the year list. I had thought that I would struggle to see many of these birds but the trip to Cornwall recently gave me the brent and the pink foot and now I've managed to see the bean goose as well that, apart from some comparative rarities, only really leaves the white-fronted goose which I hope to see at Slimbridge before the year is out.

2008 Year List

216: Tundra Bean Goose

Friday, 7 November 2008

Jack Snipe, Red-necked Grebe & Cattle Egret

On Friday I didn't feel much like working as I had too much on my mind to think about (more on that in due course) so I generously decided to give myself the day off and felt that some birding would clear my head. A couple of decent twitchable birds within reasonable distance that I needed for my year list were about: a jack snipe was showing well in front of the first hide at Calvert lakes in Bucks and the long-staying red-necked grebe had been reported as still being at Draycote reservoir in Warks. In the time I had, I couldn't really hang around too much at either venue but there was a good chance of connecting with at least one of these birds so I thought that I'd give it a go.

I set off just before 12pm and some 30 minutes later I pulled up at Calvert with the encouraging sign of three other cars in the layby. Within the hide I found Tim Watts and another Bucks birder both watching the jack snipe. They were both very kind and helpful in helping me pick it out amongst the reeds and I was soon able to get a good albeit partially obscured view of it. I decided to take a photo and it was as this point that I discovered that I'd foolishly left my camera at home. I'd been transferring the shots from my daily visit to the Meadow to my computer for my blog and had forgot to put it back into my bag. Most annoying. Since I didn't have my camera and so couldn't fiddle around digiscoping I decided to head on up quickly to Draycote.

This part of the journey actually took some 45 minutes, longer than I had anticipated so I arrived there at just after 1pm. The bird had been reported as being near the sailing club that morning so I started my search there. I soon came across a fellow birder who, when asked, said that he thought that the bird had gone "over there", indicating the far side of the reservoir, a good 30 minute's walk away. Dismayed, I was contemplating going back to the car and driving around to that side when I saw another birder close by intent on taking some photos. I thought that I would ask him before heading off to the far side and it was good that I did because it was the red-necked grebe that he was in fact photographing, some 20m away from him. It was diving frequently (and successfully) so one had to get a good look at it whilst one could in between dives. Again I was ruing having forgotten the camera but it was a lovely bird to watch and I came across some photos taken by
Bob Hazell which he kindly gave me permission to reproduce.
The Draycote Red-necked grebe © Bob Hazell

There was not much else around at Draycote so I didn't stay particularly long but it was great to connect with such a nice and showy bird. On the way back some lunatic in a jag shot across a cross roads just as I was crossing it with only violent braking on my part preventing an accident. Shaken but unharmed I made it safely back home.

The following day a message came through about a cattle egret at Days Lock near Dorchester in Oxon. Cattle egrets are new to Oxon this year with one possible sighting of 4 birds near Stanton Harcourt earlier in the year and one non-twitchable sighting from a reliable source a bit later on. If the bird stayed around then it would be the first twitchable one in Oxon and since I had L, our two year old son, for the afternoon I felt that he would be keen to add such a prestigious county tick to his list. We set off after lunch and after a bit of getting lost arrived at Little Wittenham, parked by the church and I pushed L in his all-terrain buggy down towards the lock. On the way there I met a fellow birder who told me where to go to find the bird and it was a few minutes later that I arrived in a field with cattle and some 100m away a wonderful feeding cattle egret with several birders watching it. L was very well behaved that afternoon so I had time to try to take some photos. This was a bit problematic as the bird was threading its way through all the cattle and it was often not possible to get a clear line of sight. Still I managed a few decent shots and also took some video footage. It was great to get such good views after my brief flyover sighting a few weeks earlier on the way down to Cornwall.

To view this video in high quality click here and select "Watch in High Quality Mode".

So three great birds in a couple of days. They were all out-and-out twitches which is always less satisfactory than finding something for one's self but still it was great to see them and there were two welcome additions to the year list. The jack snipe was one of the birds from my winter hit-list, the others being lesser redpoll, merlin and willow tit which I still hope to connect with some time though time is running out for the year.

2008 Year List
214: jack snipe

215: red-necked grebe

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Some good local birds

Recently, there seems to be a lot of interesting birds around nationally, with geese and swans arriving as well as a waxwing invasion that I am hoping will reach inland to places close to Oxfordshire. Locally there have been some good birds the last couple of days some of which I've managed to connect with.

Things started at my local patch on Port Meadow where on Monday I went for a post-lunch visit rather than my usual morning one. It was a good thing that I did because there on the far side of the floods was a single swan. Even at a distance through my scope a quick glance revealed that it was a lovely Bewick's swan. I decided to get closer to try to take some photos but when I got to the best position it had by then tucked it's head in and gone to sleep. I spent some twenty minutes waiting for it to wake up and managed to take a few shots of it occasionally putting its head up to check that all was ok before going back down. Then after a while it woke up properly and I was able to shoot off quite a few shots. It was a long way away and the light was so poor that I had to go to ISO 800 but with some post-processing to remove the noise the best photo came out quite well. Unfortunately the bird was gone by the next day.

The Bewick's swan on Port Meadow.

The next day at around 9:30am there was an announcement on Bird Guides that the grey phalarope was still present at Farmoor Reservoir but that there was also a great northern diver present as well. I already had seen a (different) grey phal a while ago on Farmoor but was very interested in the diver and needed no further encouragement. I generously suggested to my VLW (very lovely wife) that I take L, our two year old son, out for some fresh air to give her some time on her own so it was at around 10:15 that I pulled up at Farmoor and after some effort managed to get L and his all-terrain buggy up the steps that are around the back of the reservoir near Lower Whitely Farm. This south-west corner was the area where the bird had last been seen and using my local knowledge meant I could go directly there without the long walk from the car park. After some wrangling with L who seemed to want to run up and down the slippery steps, I settled down for a thorough scan of the water but try as I might I couldn't see any signs of any divers, just a few cormorants and great crested grebes. Cursing my luck for having dipped out I decided to walk around towards Shrike Meadow and Pinkhill to see if I could at least pick up a lesser redpoll which were supposed to be around. I'd gone about half way towards the causeway when I spotted something on the water and a quick glance through the bins immediately identified it as a cracking great northern diver. I then spent some twenty minutes digiscoping it though it was about 200m away and again the light wasn't that good. It was better than the previous day in that I could at least work at ISO 200 and the best shot came out surprisingly well. A few other birders were wandering around and I pointed out the bird to them, much to their delight.

The Farmoor juvenile great northern diver

After a while I decided to carry on towards Pinkhill to see if I could find any redpolls. I managed to hear the distinctive trill of one in the distance but wasn't able actually to see it. We made our way back towards the car, walking along the river part of the way and keeping my ears open but there were no further redpoll calls. Getting back to the car was a bit difficult as there were several narrow gates that required dismantling the push chair so it was all a bit of a struggle. However, as I was driving off, I kept the car windows open in order to listen out for birds and was soon rewarded with the distinctive "pitchoo"-ing of a marsh tit which was in the hedge row right next to the car. The bird seemed to be making its way back to the wood as I was driving slowly along so I saw and heard it a number of times. A most excellent sighting.

I'd already seen Bewick's swan this year though this one was a self-found life list tick. The diver constitutes one more tick for the year list.

2008 Year List

213: great northern diver.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

A Week In Cornwall

This week saw the family off down to the furthest reaches of Cornwall for a half-term holiday. We've been going to the end of Cornwall (i.e. around the Penzance area) for family holidays for several years now but it's only towards the end of last year when I took up birding again that I realised what a hot spot it is from the birding point of view. It was therefore with great keenest that I headed down there once more to take in the fantastic coastal scenery and hopefully some good birds too. As it was the last week in October it was getting rather late for some of the passing birds and a lot of the good stuff had already been and gone. The start of the month had seen several wrynecks, a buff-breasted sandpiper and several rose-coloured starling in the area as well as an American Wigeon and a red-eyed vireo. In fact the latter had even been discovered in the garden of the cottage that we were to stay in, in Trevilley, just a couple of minutes from Land's End and the famous Alder Flycatcher had also been discovered a few minutes walk from the cottage. Unfortunately all these birds had departed by the time that we were due to get down there but there were still some sightings of yellow-browed warblers and firecrests around in the valleys around there and these two birds, together with some brent geese and a couple of pink-footed geese which were in the area were my target birds for the trip. In addition, the area is well know for attracting rare passage birds and vagrants so anything could turn up. In particular there are a few key sights right near where we were staying which were know hot spots for rarities: Penberth, Porthcurno, Porthgwarra, Trevilley Farm & Nanjizal Valley, Land's End, Nanquidno Valley and Cot Valley were all within a few minutes drive. To make sure that I was going to know what was going on without the benefit of the internet I signed up for the Bird Guides text alert service, customised it to Cornwall only and headed off on Friday afternoon for the south-west.

The journey started off ok but we hit traffic as we joined the M5 southwards and so crawled along for an hour. We had just started moving again and entered Somerset which reminded my of my recent trip to Brownsea Island. There, on the ferry over, I'd met with a Somerset birder who was consulting for the BBC Autumn Watch program. He'd said that cattle egrets, having bred there, were very much still around. As I was just mulling this over I saw a couple of birds flying over the motorway in front of me. The time was 18:05 (I looked afterwards) and whilst it was getting dark the sun was clear of the clouds and shining quite brightly. These two birds were clearly egrets but were rather small and what's more both had yellow beaks and pale legs! There was no doubting them as cattle egrets and even though I only saw them for a few seconds before I had driven past it was a fantastic way to start the holiday. In particular I was most pleased to have connected with this species as I'd dipped out a couple of times earlier in the year in Sussex and with the large number of sightings in various parts of the country I was left feeling that I must be about the only birder left not to have seen one this year.

The next day was, from a birding point of view, one of misses and dips. Once we'd arrived at the cottage I'd received a Bird Guides text that a Richard's pipit had been seen in Sennen, not five minutes from where we were. I went out to look, meeting up with a local birder there, but the bird was no where to be seen. There was also a report of a blue throat at Land's End so on the way to Penzance to do some shopping we stopped off there briefly but the weather was atrocious and all I could find was a bunch of other birders all looking cold and not having seen anything. With a car full of children with a low boredom threshold, I didn't hang about long. Whilst in Penzance, we nipped over to Mount Bay to see if we could see the geese but again no luck. In the afternoon we went to the Cot valley to shelter from the wind. There I saw some goldcrests and a chiffchaff but no yellow-browed warblers nor any firecrests. Not a very good start to the week but I was expecting that it wouldn't be easy, especially for the yellow-browed and the firecrests which can be hard to pick out.

The following day we were lounging around in the cottage and I was wondering where to go out for a morning trip with L, my two-year old son, when a text came in saying that the blue throat was still at Land's End and was showing well! That decided it and within literally 5 minutes of having received the text I was pulling up in the car park. I decided to leave L in the car whilst I did a quick reccy and as I was getting ready I met a birder coming back who said that the bird was only about 40m away and was showing well out in the open. He directed me to a group of four other birds who were standing around and I hurried over. On arrival, a quick enquiry revealed that it was in a clump of scrub about 20m in front of us but had just nipped round the back so that we couldn't at present see it. A minute or so later it hopped back round the front in clear view. It showed well for several minutes before going off into a larger clump of scrub. I went back to the car to find that L had fallen asleep so I figured that I had a bit more time to see if I could take a photo and I went back to where the bird currently was. Unfortunately it was deep within the scrub again and it was starting to rain. I waited a short while to see if it would re-emerge but the weather was going to be difficult for digiscoping anyway and I didn't want to leave L too long so I made my way back to the car and the cottage. Below is a photo taken by Steve Rogers who has a great blog of Cornish birding at
SW Optics Photos

The Land's End blue throat. Photo © Steve Rogers

When I got back to the cottage, L was still asleep so I decided to leave him there. I was just getting out of the car when I heard a crest calling. What's more the glimpse that I got of the bird seemed to show an eye stripe so frantically tried to follow it as it moved around the small trees and shrubs of the cottage garden. After a minute or so I got a clear view and it was definitely a firecrest! I watched it for several minutes during which at one point it came so close that it was literally less than 2m from me, giving a crippling view of the wonderful firey crest and the elaborate markings around it's eyes and heads. What a fantastic view and in the cottage back garden too!.

Later that afternoon, after a walk down Nanjizal valley to the cove and back (no interesting sightings apart from a feeding gannet in the cove), a glance out of the kitchen window reveal to my delight a wonderful pair of black redstarts on the roof of the out building behind the house. Last year I'd seen quite a few black redstarts in the area so I was expecting them but it was great to see them so close to the cottage. I did look out for a suitable opportunity to take a photo but unfortunately one never arose. To round off the day we went back to Penzance for a wander along the beach. To my delight the pale-bellied brent geese were back in the bay and were feeding about 100m from the shore line so I managed some digiscoped shots of them. There were also a flock of 15 turnstones along the shore with 2 juvenile sanderling in amongst them.

Some of the pale-bellied brent geese at Mount Bay, Marazion.

All in all an excellent Sunday with two of my target birds (firecrest and brent goose) and a wonderful bonus in the shape of the bluethroat as well as the black redstarts which, although not year ticks, are always nice to see.

The next day, before the first outing and whilst staring out the door at the garden to see if there were any rarities present, I had a flyover which I am pretty sure was a lapland bunting. I only saw and heard it for a split second and I only know the call from a recording but it seemed to tick all the boxes. It's only that fact that my view was so brief and I'm not that familiar with them which leads me to leave it as a probable rather than a definite tick. In the morning I took L to Penberth to see if I could connect with any more firecrests or any yellow-browed warblers. Penberth is a lovely sheltered valley with a stream running down it and lots of trees and scrub leading down to a sheltered cove. There were quite a few birds around calling and I saw a female black cap, lots of tits, goldcrests and a flock of siskins. Towards the end, as L was getting restless I saw in the distance amongst the tits, a greenish bird with a long eye stripe. It took a while for my brain to engage, and I was thinking firecrest for a while until I remember the elaborate layers of black, white and gold/orange that go to make up a firecrests head colourings and this was a simple long eye stripe and therefore more than likely a yellow-browed warbler. It wasn't an altogether satisfactory ID so I decided to come back that afternoon with the rest of the family for another look. That afternoon, when we returned, having eaten our picnic lunch in the car as the weather was a bit dodgy, we set off for the cove once more. I'd only gone a few steps when I heard a very distinctive call which I immediately knew from my pre-holiday homework to be a yellow-browed. A minute or so of scanning in the canopy revealed the bird, which moved clearly into view, showing off it's two wing bars and elongated supercilium. I watched it for a few minutes before it moved away. A great view of a fantastic bird.

After that, the holiday started to go rather pear-shaped. First L, then my eldest daughter and then myself all came down with a bug that left us vomiting for a day or so. As bugs go it was rather mild but it rather put the dampers on the holiday. We did manage a couple of trips to stare at the sea from a car park - the it was too windy to get out for long though I did manage about 15 minutes of see watching: loads of auks, kittiwakes, gannets, fulmars and a manx shearwater. We also saw a pod of dolphins at Cape Cornwall which was great.

From a birding perspective there was little else to report on the holiday apart from on the day we were going home when I persuaded the family that it would be a good idea to stop off at Leylant Saltings Station for a few minutes whilst I scanned the Hayle estuary. This is a well known birding location and often home to vagrant green-winged teal and american wigeon. None of these were currently known to be around but there were supposed to be two pick-footed geese around which I was keen to see. I set up my scope and started a quick scan so not really checking the gulls for Meds. for example. There were loads of wigeon, some shelduck, a few ringed plover, a single bar-tailed godwit and plenty of redshank and oystercatchers, herring and black-headed gulls with a few lesser and greated black-backed thrown in. On the goose front there were a couple of dozen grey lags, a single dark-bellied brent, a few canada and also the two pink footed though they were half hidden in the channel and only showed relatively briefly. The estuary looked great and I would really have wanted to have spent much longer there but the family would no doubt be getting restless so reluctantly I headed back. Still I'd seen my target geese which was a great way to end the holiday.

So I got my four target birds and also two bonus birds that weren't expected. A great boost to the year list with 6 new ticks.

2008 Year List:

207: cattle egret
208: bluethroat
209: firecrest

210: brent goose - pale and dark bellied

211: yellow-browed warbler

212: pink-footed goose

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Farlington Marshes & Brownsea Island

After my recent trip to Christchurch Harbour, I had begun to realise that there were some great birding venues down on the south coast and had decided to explore the area further. Accordingly I'd been keeping an eye on sightings in that area with a view to putting together a trip in due course. A green-winged teal down at Farlington Marshes in Hants, in the Hayling Island harbour area seemed like a good starting point and when a ring-billed gull turned up in nearby Gosport I thought that with two target birds this was enough for a trip. In addition I'd been meaning to go to Brownsea Island for some time where spoonbills and curlew sandpipers would be a possibility so this made a total of 4 target birds so hopefully something would stick. It would mean quite a long day but I was game to give it a go.

After a few postponements, a day with reasonable weather and no family commitments meant that I could go on the trip. I got up at 6am and was out of the house by 6:45. The journey to Farlington Marshes was uneventful and I arrived at about 8:15 to find the place deserted. Not knowing the layout I started walking along the west sea wall, noticing lots of bird activity in the bushes (green finches, robins, tits, blackbirds etc.). I soon found a good vantage point to scan the mud flats (it was low tide) and found the following: hundreds of black-tailed godwits, lots of redshank, a single turnstone, quite a few grey plover and curlews, a few shelduck, a lone avocet, plenty of roosting black-headed gulls (which I didn't check for Meds.) and quite a few little egrets. I was pleased with the avocet in particular. After a few hundred yards I saw the end of the "stream" as it's apparently known. The green-winged teal was supposed to frequent this long thin pool with reeds along one side, so I turned off at this point. At the end of the stream was a pool with some wader scrapes and a scan revealed lots of sleeping snipe by the edge of the reeds. The hedge line by the edge of the pool had several stonechats in, flitting back and forth and calling loudly. I started to walk the length of the stream, stopping every few yards to scan all the teal. I wanted to make sure that I saw them from all angles in order to maximise my chances of picking out that all-important vertical white stripe that signified the green-winged teal. In passing I noted plenty of shoveler, normal teal and wigeon, a few common gulls amongst the black-headed, a few redshanks and godwits and some coots and moorhens but no sign of the green-winged teal.

At the north end of the stream I met up with the warden. He said that after some rain, he would expect the birds to disperse so that it could be anywhere on the reserve and to keep a general look-out. With all the reed beds there I also asked about beared tits and he said that there were a few present and in fact he half expected them to be flying about this morning. He also mentioned an osprey that was sitting on a post on the east side of the reserve which I thought that I'd go and take a look at. I told him about the avocet and he was quite interested in this as it was the first one to return for the winter there and had not been seen previously. As I moved off I thought that I heard the "pinging" call of a bearded tit over the roar of the traffic (the motorway is rather close to the north edge of the reserve). I looked over the reed beds and saw some long-tailed birds skimming over the reeds before ducking down again - clearly they must be bearded tits but not a great view. The next moment I got a better glimpse of a lovely male before it too ducked back down. I waited to see if they would reappear but they didn't. A very nice bonus bird to see!

I walked the entire sea wall around the reserve, seeing the osprey sitting on a very distant red post and eating a fish. There were also more of the same waders, with the addition of quite a few pintails and some great crested grebes feeding in the channel itself. A few flyover goldfinches and linnets and plenty of meadow pipits and skylarks were seen. When I got back to the southern end of the stream I thought that I would have one last look for the teal but by this time several other people had arrived, none of whom had seen the bird and there was also some more disturbance with some reed cutting going on and there weren't many birds around. Needless to say there was no sign of the bird. So for the first venue I'd missed my target bird but had picked up a bonus bird in the form of the bearded tits. The osprey and avocet were also nice birds to see so I was well pleased with progress so far. I got back to the car and considered my options: I was running a bit behind schedule and was wondering about whether to try for the ring-billed gull at Gosport or not but decided in the end to go for it.

It took about twenty minutes to get to Gosport as there was a bit of traffic around. I arrived at Walpole lake to find a most unlikely venue. It was basically a small boating lake in a public park and seemed completely deserted. I had read that if the bird wasn't present then it went to the tidal estuary behind the lake so I started to go round it when I noticed a second smaller lake the other side of the first. This seemed to have all the birds on it so I went over to that. The lake was only about 20 or 30 metres across and there were quite a few gulls on it. I sat down on a park bench and scanned the birds. To my amazement I soon picked up on the bird, sitting quite happily in amongst the other gulls, ducks and pigeons that were loafing around. I had a go at some digiscoping shots but I am learning that the autofocus has trouble with predominantly white birds so the results weren't brilliant. It was a good enough view to note the pale iris which confirms it as a ring-billed rather than a common gull. Pleased with connecting with this bird I then set off on the one hour journey for Bournemouth in order to get over to Brownsea Island.

The Gosport ring-billed gull

I arrived at just before 2pm, which gave me just enough time to find a parking space and buy my ticket before the ferry arrived. On it I met a fellow birder who was consulting for the BBC who were due to start filming Autumn Watch there next week. We had an interesting chat, and he was telling me that Brownsea Island lagoon was the best place to go (which was actually already my intention) and that there were loads of siskins in the woods.

It turned out that the last ferry left at 4pm so I had less than 2 hours in total on the island. Accordingly I hot-footed it over to the lagoon and entered the first of the three hides that overlook the water. What was immediately obvious was that there were a lot of birds to look through. There were literally hundreds of waders covering the water and it was going to take some time to check through them all. From the first hide there were lots of cormorants and black-backed gulls resting on a scrape together with at least 8 little egrets + plenty of black-tailed godwits and redshank. The first hide only gave a view of the corner of the lagoon so I soon departed and made for the second hide. Here I had a good scan around for the spoonbills and I soon found an island which I recognised from photos as being the one that the spoonbills favoured but alas it was empty so that was another target bird miss. Nevertheless I was keen to search through the birds to see if I could turn up some curlew sandpipers and also to take some photos of the birds, some of which were incredibly close to the hide.

A thorough search of the lagoon revealed hundreds of black-tailed godwits and a similar number of avocets. Lots of redshank as well but a much smaller number of greenshank (perhaps a few dozen). There may well have been some spotted redshanks in amongst the redshank but I didn't look too closely. There were also about one hundred dunlin and I searched these carefully for curlew sandpipers but didn't manage to turn any up. There were also plenty of little egrets dotted about the place. Eventually I reckoned that I had searched through all the birds and could relax and take some photos. As the birds were so close I was able to get some great shots though I still had problems with the focusing on the mostly white avocets. Below are the best of my efforts.

A redshank

One of many avocet that overwinter there

A greenshank feeding close to the hide

A video of a feeding avocet
To watch this in high quality, click here and select "Watch in high quality".

A video of a feeding greenshank
To watch this in high quality, click here and select "Watch in high quality".

All too quickly my time was up and I made my way back to catch the ferry. Brownsea Island certainly is a great place I shall definitely return for longer next time so that I can take in more of the Island.

So only one of my target birds was present but I managed to pick up a bonus tick in the form of the bearded tits so another couple of year ticks to add to the list.

2008 Year List

205: bearded tit

206: ring-billed gull

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

An American Golden Plover on the Meadow

Things have been fairly quiet on my local patch at Port Meadow for several weeks now with the same birds present. We've been lucky to have a flock of at least 30 black-tailed godwits for a while now as well as 5 or 6 ruff and plenty of snipe but there's not been much variety at all. Still it's been a good opportunity to practise my digiscoping and as the birds have been rather confiding I've been rather pleased with my recent efforts.

One of the long-staying black-tailed godwits.

The ruff have been around for a while now.

One of many pied wagtails that are always present on the Meadow.

This morning started out like any other day with my usual session down on the Meadow checking out the birds. The number of golden plover had grown to over 1000 and amongst them I noticed one which stood out because it was unusually pale with a very strong supercilium. I did wonder whether it was a grey plover but it wasn't. Recently in conversation with the county recorded he'd mentioned the possibilities of American Golden Plover and with this in mind and not personally being familiar with the differences I phoned him up and mentioned my sighting. He was intrigued enough to decided come down to the Meadow a bit later so I waited with keen anticipation for him to report back. When I got the call from him, much to my delight, he said that there was indeed an American Golden Plover present but that it was rather a dark bird. I immediately nipped back down there to find the plover flock extremely flighty, going up quite frequently before settling again. Still with some guidance I managed to locate the bird and it did indeed stand out from the flock being smaller and darker than the european goldies. Apparently he'd also seen my bird which was just a pale version of a standard plover so it turned out to be rather fortuitous that he'd happened to find the American Goldie in amongst the flock.

A few other birders started to arrive and I was just getting my digiscoping gear set up when a sparrow hawk flew over and put the entire flock up again. When they settled again some five minutes later we all started to scan for the bird but despite our efforts it could not be seen and to my knowledge it wasn't see again after that. This was rather unlukcy because the vast majority of the birds stayed put on the Meadow and our rarity must have been one of the few that decided to leave. Still fingers crossed that it might turn up again tomorrow.

I have since learnt that one of the key diagnostics for ID'ing an American Golden Plover is the long primary projection: 4 or even 5 primary tips visible beyond the tertials and wing-tips projecting beyond the tail. The county recorder managed to check this out on the bird in question today. A smaller primary projection could instead mean a Pacific Golden Plover. A key feature for both vagrant plovers is that the underwing is a dark grey rather than white, something which was noticable on the Meadow bird today.

A record shot of the American Golden Plover © Nic Hallam

Another tick for the year list.

2008 Year List

204: American Golden Plover

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

A Day's Birding at Christchurch Harbour

I'd been suffering from the lack of interesting birds in Oxfordshire recently. Whilst I am still diligently working away at my patch (see Port Meadow Birding), there's not been much new to see there or elsewhere in Oxon and I was champing at the bit to go somewhere new to see something a bit different. I'd recently discovered the great CHOG web-site with daily updates of sightings at Christchurch harbour. In particular I was taken with the fact that both curlew sandpiper and bar-tailed godwits were being seen at Stanpit marsh fairly regularly which were two waders I was keen to see. The barwits, I needed for my year list, and curlew sandpipers were ones that I couldn't remember whether I'd seen during my previous boyhood birding so were officially "unseen" on my life list. Added to that, firecrests had recently been seen at Hengistbury head as well as plenty of recent vagrants (Richard's pipits, penduline tit) and good sea-watching possibilities (grey phalarope, red-throated diver, long-tailed skuas) it seemed like a great all-round venue for a day's birding. I reckoned that it would take 2 hours to get there which was a lot better than the nearly 3 hours that it takes to get to Portland so I decided that a trip down there was in order.

Whilst I had made up my mind on the location, there was still the small matter of tides and weather. The harbour itself has two birding venues on either side of the harbour itself: Stanpit Marsh is good for waders, whereas Hengistbury Head was mainly scrub land and sea watching at the end though both sides offered views of the harbour itself. The best time for the marsh was 1 to 3 hours before high tide where the mud is visible but the birds aren't too far out. Therefore there was a certain amount of viewing tidetables and weather forecasts before finally deciding to go. With a date finally chosen I awoke at 6am and was out of the door by 6:45 heading off down the A34 towards Dorset. The journey itself took 2 hours plus a bit of extra time for some traffic delays but at around 9am I pulled up at the Hengistbury Head car park and paid the fee using my mobile phone which I'd not done before but which was very convenient as you could top it up without having to return to the car. I then set off to explore the Head.

The Head was an interesting mix of scrub land, with a small wood half way along, an old harbour lagoon and at the end some beach huts behind which the locals shelter when they go sea watching. As I wandered, loads of meadow pipits and linnets were flying overhead. The scrub bushes held plenty of warblers and tits and a local field was full of stonechats. I met up with a couple of local birders for whom this was their local patch. They said that not much was around today but one had seen a ring ouzel earlier on and a spoonbill had flown over earlier and a little gull had been in the harbour. I asked about firecrests and both had said that they'd not seen or heard any that day. Nevertheless I listened and looked carefully as I went through the firecrest-favoured woodland section and turned up quite a few goldcrests but alas no fires. The old dock held about 15 redshanks and a few little egrets but nothing more exotic. I arrived at the sea shore and did only a few minutes watching (enough to see a great crested grebe on the sea) before deciding that I needed to head back. The reason for this was that one of the locals had pointed out that it was an unusually high tide today so that the optimal viewing times at Stanpit Marsh would be earlier than normal. This had rather messed up my plans but rather than rushing like a lunatic over there I decided to head back at a leisurely pace, take in the local birds and I'd just have to view the waders as they roosted on the marsh at high tide. I had my packed lunch on the sea shore and then headed over to the other side of the harbour to investigate the marsh.

The marsh consisted of peninsula jutting out into the harbour itself, with mud banks to the south of it. At high tide the birds roost on the marsh itself, often well hidden in the grass or feed at the very edge of the marsh where some mud is still exposed. As I arrived there was plenty of bird activity and I soon picked out a continental blackbird in the bushes (distinguishable by its black beak). Just past the new nature reserve centre a sparrow hawk flew very low over the grass and pounced on a victim (a starling I think) before making off to devour it in the trees. As I explored, I soon came across an inlet with a variety of birds within it feeding along its shore line. At the end were a dozen or so dunlin and I soon spied something a bit different: it was roughly dunlin-like but a bit larger than the other birds with an fairly even-toned grey back, no underbelly markings and a slight grey smudge of a breast band. In addition it had a longer bill and longer legs than the surrounding dunlin. At this point I got rather excited and started thinking of curlew sandpipers. In fact it was only when I got home and did more research that I came to the conclusion that this was actual an adult dunlin in winter plumage. Typically a curlew sandpiper in this country will have a patterned back and only rarely is it seen in the full winter plumage. Without the diagnostic white rump I wasn't going to claim a rarely-seen plumage type. It just goes to show how variable dunlin can be and how careful one has to be before assuming that it's something else.

It seemed that most of the waders were in or around this creek so I settle down and took stock. There were loads of black-tailed godwits roosting in the grass, a couple of knot, two spotted redshank, plenty of curlew, around 15 or so common redshank and a few oystercatchers all milling around, feeding or roosting. They were not too far away and despite the abysmal light conditions I had a go at digiscoping and I was pleasantly surprised at the results after I finished post-processing them even though I had to go up to ISO 400 to get any kind of decent shutter speed. The best of the bunch are displayed below.

A curlew on the marsh

Two feeding knot

A spotted redshank and two redshank, making a nice comparison

Oystercatchers resting at high tide

In addition to the birds in the creek, out in the harbour there was a sand spit and an island. On the spit there were three distant godwits which on closer inspection turned out to be bar-tailed. I was most pleased about this as these were one of my target birds. I had a quick wander around the rest of the marsh but it seemed that the choice spot was my creek so I spent a bit longer there before making my way back to the car park. There I had a brief panic as I couldn't find my car keys before locating them in a different pocket from usual. The journey home was uneventful.

That evening I read up on the CHOG web-site that a pair of lapland buntings had been seen to fly over as well as a few interesting birds from sea watching. My impression is that there is a small but dedicated team of experienced birders who work the patch and report back so far more was picked up than I saw that day. Nevertheless I enjoyed my trip down to Christchurch and will certainly be back again.

One more tick for the year list though ticks are much harder to come by these days. I've been thinking of what I still need from my list and one section which is woefully under represented is geese so perhaps a trip to Norfolk this autumn or winter is called for. I could also benefit from doing some more sea watching as there are quite a few ticks there that I still need.

2008 Year List

203: bar-tailed godwit