Sunday, 31 August 2008

A good week at the local patch

No major birding trips recently but it's been a good week at my local patch Port Meadow ( and I wanted to share some of my sightings there. In addition my digiscoping is improving and I wanted to post some of my better efforts to the blog.

For the last couple of weeks I've been getting up at around 7am and heading straight down to Port Meadow for an hour or so to check out the birds. There's not been any rain recently so lots of the mud has dried out and doesn't look so productive now. Still there's been a greenshank and a ruff on there all week and I even managed to get a couple of reasonable digiscoping shots of the greenshank.

The long-staying greenshank on Port Meadow.

I also managed a passable shot of a snipe

and quite a few close-ups of some of the many black-headed gulls that are currently present.

One thing which has improved my photos has been that someone put me on to post-processing of my shots using Paint Shop Pro. I know that many birders use Photo Shop Elements instead, but a local photographer, who supplies quite a few shots for the Port Meadow Birding blog, said that he uses PSP and that you can do everything that you can do in PSE with it. I've been experimenting and whilst I'm just getting started I can already notice the difference with some of my shots, even if it's just lightening or darkening them and sharpening them up a bit.

Anyway, as far as the birds have been concerned, this week there have been a few decent passage birds around. What's also been interesting has been that I've started going out at lunch time for my run now, seeing as I don't have time in the morning now that I'm birding then. What I've noticed is that you tend to get some interesting stuff passing through then that I'm not seeing first thing. I also noticed this on the spring passage: there was a period of several days when there was nothing first thing but at lunch time there'd be one or more greenshanks on the floods. I suppose the birds are using the Meadow like a motorway service station for a quick stop-off and a rest before resuming their journey.

On my lunch time runs I've twice seen a wheatear and also some yellow wagtails. I also managed to see a whimbrel which was very nice. I heard it calling, saw it land on the far side only for an aggressive lapwing to chase it off its patch so that it took to the air, calling again and headed off. It was a shame that it didn't stay longer but nice to see all the same.

The highlight of the week for me was probably a cracking whinchat. I'd noticed on the various Bucks news groups that whinchats were coming through and in particular were being seen at the local high points (Ivinghoe Beacon and Pitstone Hill for example). I'd been thinking of heading out that way to see if I could connect with one but I'd also decided to extend my lunch-time run through Burgess Field NR to see if I could pick one (or a redstart) up there. It seemed like a long shot but I wanted the exercise and I could do a nice circuit through the NR and back round the far (river) side of the floods. This Thursday lunch time I was running along, scanning the tops of the bushes as I went when I saw something sitting on top of a hawthorn bush. Now Burgess Field is so quiet at the moment on the bird front that actually to see anything is quite an achievement (apart from a few "hueeting" willow/chaffs) but this bird turned out to be a lovely whinchat. I was able to get to within about 30m and watch as it sat for a while and then made a sortee to pick off a fly before returning to its perch.

I tend to lump wheatear, redstart, whinchat and ring ouzel together as birds that will just be passing through Oxon and which you can often pick up on the hills. The only one that I still need for my year list now which I missed on the spring passage is ring ouzel so I'm keeping an eye out on the postings for one though I'll certainly have to head for the hills to connect with one of those. Anyway, the whinchat is another year tick for me.

2008 year list
198: whinchat.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Twitching in Gloucestershire: (the stilt sandpiper)

Most rarities that come up are a rather large distance from Oxford and so there's no question of going to try to twitch them. However in the last few days a genuine "Mega" in the form of a stilt sandpiper had turned up in Gloucestershire at Coombe Hill Meadows. What's more it had reliably been seen there for several days. Given that I was overdue for one of my sessions off work for birding I thought that I would do some work first thing in the morning and wait to see if it was broadcast as being present on Bird Guides and if it did I would have a go at it. One of the crucial factors that swayed me was the presence of a reliable "back-up bird" in the form of a red-necked phalarope just down the road from it at Saul Warth in Frampton-on-Severn. This had reliably been present for several days now and if it too were to come up as being present on Bird Guides on that day then I would feel reasonably confident that my journey would not entirely be wasted. There was always Slimbridge near-by as well which recently had had a few birds that I still needed for my year list (e.g. spotted redshank).

The day in question, both birds were listed almost as soon as the service started up for the day so it was just a question of getting my work out of the way. Unfortunately a few "asap" jobs came up which I had to deal with first so it wasn't until 10am that I was able to head off west towards Gloucestershire. The route was pretty straight-forward, being just down the A40 with only a bit of fiddling around at Cheltenham required to get to my first destination of Coombe Hill Meadows. This was my first experience of a mega twitch and there were birders and their cars everywhere. The car park by the canal was full so I to park in the pub car park at the top of the road and walk down. I immediately met a fellow birder and asked if the bird was present only to be told that it had been seen first thing (7am) but not since then. The chap had apparently been there for three hours with no sighting at all. By now it was about 11:15 and it looked as though I had dipped out. I decided to walk down to the hide to have a look around anyway so I went along what was by now a very muddy path. Unfortunately in my excitement and haste to get to the site I had not bothered to put on my walking boots so my normal shoes, although solid "trecking shoes", where getting very muddy.

When I got to the hide there were about a dozen birders there all staring studiously out of the hide. Indeed so full was it that I had to set up at the back with my scope and peer over someone's head. A quick scan revealed a wood sandpiper, a green sandpiper, 3 ringed plover, 2 little egrets and a little ringed plover. There was no point in hanging around I thought so I did a "dip and run" and headed back to the car. At the top of the road a very frantic welshman stopped me and asked me if the bird was still there. When I told him that it hadn't been seen since 7am he was almost in tears with frustration. I wasn't so cut up about it as I have so many much commoner birds on my list still to see that the dipping out on a mega wasn't such a big deal to me. Anyway, I decided to head off the short distance to Frampton to see if I could connect with the phalarope at least.

Some 20 minutes later I found myself heading down the canal tow path towards the Saul Warth viewing point. I met some fellow birders coming the other way who informed me that the phalarope was still present as well as some greenshank and a spotted redshank. Heartened by this I made my way to the viewing point where I met up with some birders who had also been at Coombe Hill Meadows earlier on and like me had decided to come here as a back-up.

The Saul Warth floods at Frampton-on-Severn.

I soon managed to find the phalarope, which was happily swimming about amongst all the reeds. Due to the nature of the location this meant that for a fair portion of the time the bird was actually out of sight so it was a question of waiting until it reappeared and getting a good look while you could.

The best digiscoped shot I could manage under windy and long range conditions.

Apart from this lovely small bird, there were loads of black-tailed godwits, quite a few greenshank and I even managed to find a spotted redshank amongst them.

Godwits on the floods

Whilst I was there happily watching the phalarope, the fellow sandpiper dippers got a pager update from Bird Guides saying that the stilt sandpiper had been seen at 1pm back at the Meadows. They immediately set back off there to have a look. I was in two minds about this myself so I stayed for some time in order to have a go at some digiscoping and to enjoy the tranquility of the place compared to the scrum that I had experienced back at Coombe Hill. I was chatting with yet another birder who had dipped out on the sandpiper that morning and he said that he was going to go back so I thought that I might as well go too. Now that I'd connected with my back-up bird I was going to be content even if I dipped again at Coombe Hill.

On the way I got a nice view of a hobby flying low over head and an excellent view of a buzzard sitting on a post right by the roadside. A while later I arrived back at the pub car park and having learnt my lesson from previously, I put on my walking boots. As I started down the lane a car drove by containing a couple of birders, one of whom gave me an encouraging thumbs up sign. I also met someone leaving who said that the bird was there. I was also told that rather than going in the hide, the bird was best seen by going to the right of the flooded copse in which the hide was located and viewing the scrapes from the field instead. Encouraged by this I increased my walking speed, overtaking some slower birders, and soon arrived at the field in question.

The Coombe Hill Meadows scrapes

There were some birders already there and I even recognised the birder from Saul-Warth who had helped me decided to return here. The bird was indeed showing though it was at the very far side of the scrape. Even with my super-duper swaro scope the heat haze meant that the view was rather fuzzy at best but you can't have everything, especially for a "mega". I did try taking some digiscope shots but the results were little more than a distant grey blob. Content with my sighting and having connected with both target birds I decided to head back to Oxford, getting caught in a tremendous cloud burst whilst driving through Cheltenahm.

Another few ticks for the year list and a couple of lifers as well. I was particularly pleased with the spotted redshank as it was one of the commoner waders that had been evading me so far this year. For those new to this blog my life list is rather small as I've only recently (within the last year) taken up birding again having given it up as a young boy. Therefore to all intents and purposes I've only been doing it a short while.

2008 Year List
195: red-necked phalarope
196: spotted redshank
197: stilt sandpiper

Saturday, 16 August 2008

A wood sandpiper and a redstart

This saturday, my VLW (very lovely wife) and my two daughters had to go to London shopping, leaving me to look after our two year old son, L, for the day. Naturally I felt that he would be best entertained by some local birdwatching trips. To start with I was sure that he'd be keen to visit our local patch, Port Meadow, to see what was about. After that I suspected he wanted to go hunting for a common redstart, one of the birds on my summer hit list which I still needed.

I'd been going to Port Meadow early each morning with the new scope to check out for any autumn passage waders (see for my daily sightings). The light is often excellent at this time and from the ideal direction to light up the birds so one can see everything clearly. I'd also taken the opportunity to start getting to grips with my new camera and the black art of digiscoping. I even managed a couple of good shots which I would like to post here.

A Little Egret

A grey heron

There'd been nothing particularly exciting this week but I thought that I would go again this morning with L. I arrived at the usual viewing point to find three fellow birding colleagues all present. We spent some time viewing and chatting but with not much of interest around when we heard a wader calling and someone identified it as a wood sandpiper which we soon managed to locate. I even managed a passable digiscoping effort.

A wood sandpiper

This was a lifer for L and I'm sure that he was very excited with this tick. Flushed with this success we decided to head into Bucks to Calvert BBOWT nature reserve where a common redstart had been present for the last few days. This was one of the birds I still needed for my summer hit list, the others being nightingale and firecrest. The nightingale I've more or less given up on for the year and the firecrest I still hope to get at some point but I wanted to try and bag a redstart before they all leave. If I didn't manage to connect with the Calvert one I was going to head on to Quainton Hill where they often congregate in the hedgerows at the foot of the hill.

I managed to find the Calvert reserve ok and having installed L in his all-terrain pushchair we set of. The bird was apparently located to the left of the hide which I managed to find after only a couple of minutes walk down the path. I couldn't hear any "hueeting" when I arrived so I popped into the hide to check out the lake but there was little of interest apart from a juvenile great crested grebe, three common terns, lots of coots and lots of cormorants. Coming back out of the hide I start to walk slowly along the path listening carefully and I soon heard the insistent hueeting of a redstart. Scanning around I couldn't see it at all and it soon stopped calling. I'd read that they can be quite shy and once they spot you they hunker down until you've gone so I back-tracked out of sight and L and I had our packed lunch. After this we went back to the bushes and listened again. There was some brief calling and then nothing so I decided to set off down the path to see if I could get a sighting. Walking slowly and scanning carefully I soon spotted a couple of lesser whitethroats in the scrub. I got good views of them which was nice after the very fleeting sighting that was all that I'd had up till now for this year. I walked to the corner of the lake with only a pair of bull finches for my trouble and a couple of nice lizards sitting on a log so I retraced my steps.

Lizards on a log

I'd nearly got back to the path when the redstart started calling again, quite near and quite insistently. Parking L's buggy in a strategic place I crept forwards in a crouch and scanned around. I could hear it calling and then I spotted it flying from one bush to another. I only caught a glimpse of its tail and couldn't tell it's sex but it was still calling and flitting from bush to bush and each time I got a better view until I saw clearly that it was a lovely male which was interesting as it had been a female that was know to have been present there. On the way back to the car park I met a fellow birder who said that he thought that there was more than one redstart present and my sighting seemed to bear this out.

We next nipped over to Quainton Hill, which I recognised as somewhere where I'd been on a family picnic a few years back. I went to the north and south sides of the hill and had a brief scan from the car but didn't see anything of interest apart from a close view of a red kite. It seemed that one would have had to get out and walk a fair way to the line of hedges on the north side and as it was getting late and I'd already bagged my redstart I decided to leave it for another day.

Another year tick for me and another step closer to the 200 figure.

194: common redstart

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

A Wet Week In Wales

Due to general incompetence at organising a family holiday this year, we ended up taking on a last minute offering from some friends who were unable to go on their holiday. So we found ourselves heading off to mid-wales, more specifically Penbryn in Ceredigion to stay in a log cabin which was close to the sea. I was hoping that I might have another opportunity to practise my sea-watching skills which, as regular readers of this blog will know (if there are any!) is something that I've been working on this year with rather mixed results. Moreover, I had recently bought myself a new scope, a Swarovski 80HD no less, complete with carbon fibre tripod, as a reward after I came into a bit of money. I was therefore very much looking forward to getting to grips with sea-watching with a decent scope to see how much of a difference that made. I was not holding out too much hope on this holiday from a birding point of view but was hoping at least for some manx shearwaters and possible a chough or two.

The cabin proved to be only a short 5 minute walk from the beach, through some pleasant woodland in the valley of a stream. I quickly got into the routine of getting up early and walking down there whilst the rest of my family slept, this way I wasn't being too antisocial on the family holiday. The beach wasn't exactly an ideal sea-watching as it didn't in any way jut out into the sea so this meant that the birds tended to be very distant. However, there was usually not much wind which meant that I could got up to high magnification quite comfortably. It immediately became apparent that the new Swaro made all the difference with the sea watching and I was able to see things pretty clearly even up to x60 mag. I won't bore the reader by listing things on a day by day basis but in general the following were seen:

manx shearwaters: lots (some days more than 1000) of these flying around though mostly at a distance; plenty of the usual gannets, quite a few kittiwakes, a few fulmars, razorbills, guillemots and common scoter. A few waders flew past as well: mostly oystercatchers, though some sanderling and a distant flock of what were either curlew or whimbrel.

On the last morning of sea watching, there was a large flock of birds at a great distance, basically more or less on the horizon. The light was pretty good and there was bright sunshine lighting the birds up so at full mag it was possible to make out the gannets and the shearwaters flying around in large numbers. At that moment a dark bird flew into view and I managed to see it as it opened its wings up, flashing some white markings on its primaries. It was clearly a skua and even at that distance I could tell it was of a reasonable size so I was pretty confident in identifying it a great skua. I was just basking in the glow of another year tick when a flock of 5 geese came into view. Four were clearly canada geese but the 5th was a blue morph snow goose! I have subsequently spoken to the former county recorder for Ceredigion who told me that an escapee was known to be in the area so that was almost certainly it.

Apart from the sea watching a few birds were seen
en passant. On three separate occasions I managed to see a pair of chough and I even managed a passable digi-bining photo (taking a photo through the binoculars) as I didn't have my scope with me. Here's the best effort:

Choughs on a cliff

We quite often saw red kites as we were driving about. In Oxfordshire this is no big deal and they are becoming common place due to the re-introduction scheme but I told my VLW (very lovely wife) that these were genuine rare kites. Subsequently, however, I found out that they have been reintroduced here too!

Due to its woodland setting, the were quite a few birds in the garden of where we were staying, with plenty of willow warblers and chiffchaffs around, an occasional nuthatch and a regular family of goldcrests. One evening we heard a tawny owl "kewick" -ing from across the valley. My eldest daughter and I decided that it would be fun to see if we could lure it over so I used my bird calls installed on my mobile phone and played both the kewick and the hooting song. There didn't seem to be any response so after a few minutes I stopped. A minute or so later we suddenly heard a loud kewick and some snarling from the end of the garden. We ran over and just managed to see a tawny owl flying off, obviously having come over to see off the apparent intruder. I was most pleased about this as this was the last owl that I needed for my year list.

Whilst there, I did have a go at digiscoping with the new scope. I'd also bought a new camera (a Nikon P5100) and though it's early days, I did manage a couple of ok shots (though the buzzard is somewhat out of focus).

A rabbit on the lawn

A local buzzard

At the end of the holiday we went northwards to Snowdonia for an annual camping fest with some of my VLW's relatives. On the way up I suggested that we stop off at Ynyslas NR for a quick look round. I had promised my VLW a nice cup of tea at the visitor's centre and she was none too impressed when it turned out that there wasn't any. With this
faux pas, I felt that I couldn't spend long there and had to be content with a very quick scan round. The heat haze there was remarkable and even with the Swaro it was difficult to see clearly at any distance but I did manage to make out one turnstone, a few dozen dunlin and sanderling and a dozen or so sandwich terns. I was most pleased about the latter as I needed this for my year list. Apparently there were some knot about as well (another I need for the list) but they weren't seen during my brief stay.

In Snowdonia itself there weren't many bird sightings of interest as the weather was pretty poor with constant heavy rain the first day and strong winds on the second. A few goosander on Llyn Peris by Llanberis were interesting and I managed a distant photo using my hand-held P&S camera.

On the foothills of Snowdon itself I saw a few meadow pipits, a wheatear and several ravens. At the camp site there were several buzzards and families of linnets and stonechats to view. I had hoped for a redstart there, having seen one a couple of years ago (when I wasn't actively birding) but I couldn't find any. I also heard a little owl during the night but didn't bother to get up to find it.

So a surprisingly good trip with quite a few new ticks:

188 manx shearwater
189 chough
190 tawny owl
191 great skua
192 snow goose (though probably plastic)
193 sandwich tern

With regards to the plasticity of the snow goose, strictly speaking three of my year ticks are plastic wild fowl: barnacle goose, ruddy shelduck and now the snow goose. There is also the release scheme great bustard as well. At present I am keeping plastic ducks and release birds in the list as it's my first go at a year list. However, in future years I shall be more strict on myself. Only seven more birds to go to reach the magic 200 level.