Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Seeking a Richard's Pipit

It's been another week of no major birding trips though I am planning one for the next few days (more on that in due course). There have been the usual daily trips to Port Meadow to check out my local patch and a few more digiscoping efforts. The golden plover have made a welcome return to the Meadow and their numbers are now increasing.

Golden Plover on the Meadow

In addition there have been unusually large numbers of black-tailed godwits, with a peak count of 40 birds, perhaps a county record!
Black-tailed Godwit

There have been plenty of ruff still around and I was quite pleased with the shot below, taken in the mist and at a reasonable distance.
A ruff in the mist

Throughout the winter months the Meadow has masses of wigeon around and they are already there in numbers.


As well as my daily trips to the Meadow at the weekend we went en famille to the White Horse at Uffington to take advantage of the Indian summer weather. On the way there my eldest daughter K pointed out a soaring buzzard. I pulled over and spent several minutes studying it before concluding that it was a juvenile pale morph common buzzard rather than a honey buzzard. Once on the hill there were loads of migrants in evidence with plenty of meadow pipits and skylarks on the summit. Nearby there was a farm field which had a flock of at least 200 birds, from a distance I would guess a mixed flock consisting of linnets, gold finches and meadow pipits. There was also a single wheatear along the edge of the field, a hovering kestral overhead and another common buzzard. Unfortunately I didn't have that long to look around as K, fully embracing her new role as a teenager, was getting fed up and wanted to go home.

On the way back I got a text from a birding colleague saying that somone had found a Richard's Pipit on Otmoor. As soon as I was able I called him back to find out the details. Apparently it had only been seen by the one person but as he was "Mr. Otmoor", practically living on the reserve and also a birder of huge experience, there was no doubt that the sighting was genuine. Unfortunately it was getting dark by this time and the family wanted feeding so I was going to have to wait until tomorrow before having a look for the bird.

The next day dawned with a thick mist which meant that I could have a lie in, get our two year old son L up, dressed and fed all before the mist had cleared. I generously offered to take L off my VLW's (very lovely wife) hands for a few hours and L and I set off for Otmoor. Although the mist was clearing elsewhere, when I arrived at Otmoor it was still quite thick. I put L in his all-terrain push chair and we set off. The bird had been seen on the Pill Ground, which is an area of the reserve that I'd not been to before. When I got to the field it was distinctly boggy and having to drag L and his buggy through the bog was hard going. It was quite atmospheric though, with snipe periodically flying up and calling in the mist. Eventually we made it to the next field where there was a convenient bridge over a stream. I had a look around, seeing a couple of stonechat and a distant silhouetted bird in the hedgerow which could have been a redstart. I was looking down the stream when I saw a bird half way along. "Go on, be a water rail" I said to myself as I raised my bins to my eyes, and lo and behold it was. I reached for my digiscoping gear to try and take a photo but it slunk off before I could. Other birds of note were a couple of hobbies, a (common) buzzard, a few golden plover and a calling cetti's warbler.

By this time it was getting on so we headed back through the bog towards the car. There I met up with some fellow birders who'd heard a mysterious pipit fly overhead. I got out my mobile with the Bird Guides bird calls on it and played them Richard's and also tree. One of the guys reckoned it was a tree pipit but I later heard that another was more inclinded toward the Richard's. Anyway, I didn't get to see or hear it - it was always a long shot but I'd enjoyed a pleasant, if muddy and wet, morning on Otmoor.

The water rail was another year tick. It was also one of my target birds that I'd still not actually seen yet this year, the others being lesser redpoll, jack snipe, merlin and willow tit. The jack snipe I should get around Oxford or Abingdon somewhere, the merlin at Otmoor and I'm planning a return trip to Combe in Berkshire for the Willow tit. I am also very keen to catch up with bar-tailed godwit and curlew sandpiper and am therefore planning a few trips to suitable areas for these two waders.

2008 year list
202: water rail.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

A "Possible", a Hen Harrier, and a Ferruginous Duck

This weekend I had my two year old son L for most of the day whilst my VLW (very lovely wife) helped our younger daughter B with her homework. I'd been meaning to get up onto the hills to look for migrants for some time and the recent honey buzzard influx was an added incentive so I decided that I would see if I could get L up Quainton Hill in Bucks. The journey takes about 25 minutes or so from Oxford and I parked on the village green and got L loaded into his all-terrain push-chair. I wasn't sure what the terrain would be like and was contemplating that I would have to leave the chair somewhere at some point to continue on foot but this turned out to be sooner than expected as the first gate onto the footpath was a narrow kissing gate and would have involved taking L and all the gear off the pushchair and folding it up again to get it through so I decided that we'd have to proceed on foot from the start. We therefore set off at a suitably slow pace up the hill, which gave me plenty of opportunity to scan the hedges for migrants. I was particularly looking out for redstarts and whinchats but all I could find were willow warblers and chiffchaffs with mipits flying overhead. L was grumbling a bit at climbing what was quite a steep hill for him and he needed a bit of coaxing and bribery with the promise of some biscuits on the summit. He made it up to the top of the ridge where we sat down and I gave him his snacks to keep him quiet whilst I set up my scope and scanned the hills. After a while I spotted a large raptor in the distance and quite low down. Unfortunately it was side on and it never gave me a decent view but I could see that it had rather a long tail and I did wonder whether I'd missed a honey buzzard. Still, on such a pleasant early autumn afternoon it was great to get up to such a lovely location.

The next morning I was due to catch up with a fellow Oxford birder S with whom I go out birding from time to time. Because I had L in tow with me once more we decided to give Otmoor a visit which was fairly child friendly and where L could walk if needs be. The weather was absolutely gorgeous with warm sun and hardly a breath of wind. It was interesting to see all the digging going on there with two huge fields in the process of being dug up to make wader scrapes and eventually a hide overlooking them both. This did mean that the normally very productive Ash Grove field was out of action but there was still plenty to look at. There were lots of birds leading up to and by the feeders with warblers everywhere and a variety of finches as well as reed buntings and yellow hammers. Two rather smart greater spotted woodpeckers were flying around and at least one was feeding on the feeders. Once on the main path there was surprisingly little bird action in the hedge but S managed to find a distant stonechat in the main field which was nice to see and the first of the autumn season for me. I was keen for a whinchat but despite close scrutinity of the fields and posts therein I couldn't seem to find one.

Going towards the first screen with L now walking and chatting quietly to himself, we met with Peter Barker, the reserve warden, who informed us that there had been two possible honey buzards there yesterday and that the marsh harrier was probably still about. As we spoke I saw something gliding just about the field of view low over the reeds which could have been it but it disappeared before I could be certain. At the first screen there was little to see on the water though apparently a red crested pochard had been seen earlier. Overhead there were dozens of snipe flying around everywhere, landing in the reeds and then flying up again. There must have been at least 100 birds around in total. A pair of beautiful kingfishers gave a good view from a close distance by the hide and a well-hidden water rail was squealing in the reed bed.

Ambling on towards the second screen there were loads of tits, reed buntings and warblers skulking in the hedge row, the latter being mostly willow warblers and chiffchaffs but we had a possible garden warbler as well. At the second screen there was again not much of interest on the water itself but overhead there were several kesterls and hobbies and a red kite as well as a couple of buzzards which were closely scrutinised but however hard we squinted they still looked like commons.

Heading back towards the car with L once more installed in his buggy, S spotted a distant thermalling raptor. Getting the bins onto it revealed another red kite and what we first took to be hobbies close by but closer inspection showed that one of them was too large and was showing a white rump. Getting the scopes on it revealed a lovely ringtail hen harrier - a very nice bird and a great end to a pleasant morning's birding.

A couple of days later I was just contemplating going downstairs to lunch (I work from home) when I thought to give Bird Guides a quick check. Low and behold there was a Ferruginous duck reported at Calvert in Bucks only about 40 minutes previously. Given how close the location was this was a classic lunch-time twitch so I threw together some sandwiches, gave my VLW a quick call and set off on the journey. Some 25 mintues later I pulled up by the reassurringly full car park and trotted the few yards down to the first hide. Fortunately it held quite a few birders all busy watching a lovely adult drake ferruginous duck. It was in the company of a dozen or so pochards and whilst it had its head down for much of the time, it would keep a wary eye open the whole time and occasionally wake up and swim rather rapidly back to re-join the pochard group. I had a go at digiscoping it though it was rather distant and uncooperative with its posture. The results are little more than record shots really but it was all good practice.

The Calvert Ferruginous Duck

Lee Evans, of UK 400 Club fame, was present and pointed out the key factors that showed it was pure bred and not a hybrid: just the nail on the beak black rather than a band, a "pearly" white eye, and very clean white under-tail coverts. Apparently this was only the second Ferruginous Duck sighting in the country this year. The fact that it had flown in with the pochards was also a good sign that it was not an escapee though one can never be sure of provenance. A nice lunch-time twitch for what is a very handsome duck and a nice year tick also.

2008 Year List:

201: Ferruginous Duck

Thursday, 11 September 2008

A Knot on the Meadow

I'm still dutifully going down to my local patch, Port Meadow, each morning to see what's about and recording my sightings in my other blog: Port Meadow Birding. Recently the rain has extended the flood area a lot and has hidden the wonderful mud that makes Port Meadow so attractive to passing waders so there's not been so much wader activity and what little there is is also further away and consequently harder to see and to digiscope. Because of this yesterday I put my wellies on and resolved to walk along the west side of the floods to get closer to the north end of the floods where the birds seemed to be hanging out. I was hoping to digiscope some golden plover which had been present for the last few days.

There are lots of lapwings present on the Meadow currently.

Having walked to my chosen viewing spot I was scanning the north of the floods and seeing the ever-present lapwings, teal, wigeon, shoveler and gadwall and managing to locate a flock of 11 golden plover. I then spotted something to the right of the golden plover, sleeping with its head tucked it and half hidden behind some grass in an altogether uncooperative manner. It's colouring was different from the plover though given what little I could see there was little chance of ID'ing it unless it moved. Fortunately it decided to lift its head up, revealing quite a stout straight bill of about one head length in size (a very useful measure that I use when assessing waders) before going back to sleep. This was enough for me to see that it had rather a prominent light grey/brown supercilium with a dark crown, dark grey/brown upper parts and a paler buff front. As far as size was concerned it was defintely larger than a nearby dunlin that was skulking around and perhaps slightly smaller than the golden plover. I started to set up the digiscoping gear in the hope that it would show itself more clearly all the while going through the possible waders that it could be. As I was fiddling around the bird popped its head up and flew a few yards into some even thicker grass where it was completely hidden. Fortunately I was able to see the scaly grey back, the perhaps slightly rufous buff front with the white undertail section and also to notice its rather plump appearance. All this was enough for me to nail it down as a knot.

A distant record shot of some of the nearby golden plover which I took whilst waiting for the knot to show itself.

This was a nice bird to see for Oxfordshire as only a few are seen each year on the autumn passage and nearly always at Farmoor reservoir. It was also a first for me for the Meadow as well as another year tick which brings up my 200 total.

2008 year list:

200: red knot.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Chasing Phalaropes

Recently there's been a large number of grey phalaropes seen about the country and, being in land-locked Oxfordshire, it was rather frustrating to see all the sightings appear around the coast on Bird Guides. So when a pair of birds, an adult and a juvenile, turned up in Bucks at at Western Turville reservoir I contemplated going over to see them. Though the adult flew away the same day, the juvenile hung around and was reported as being seen the next day so I thought that a lunch-time trip over there was in order. I finished off a piece of work and headed for the door, pausing only to bundle my birding gear in the car. I'd been to Western Turville before and set off into what became a torrential downpour.

It was still pouring with rain when I arrived at the reservoir so I put on my full waterproof gear and set off the short distance to the reservoir dam wall where the bird had been reported as being located. When I arrived there were no birders present (an ominously bad sign) and a quick scan revealed no sign of the bird. Given how confiding they are it was unlikely that it was hiding so it looked like it had gone. As I stood in the pouring rain contemplating this ignominious dipping out, there was a clap of thunder and the rain doubled in intensity and couldn't help but think that someone up there was adding insult to injury! I got home and checked the various internet sources that I had only to discover that the bird had flown about an hour before I arrived. Not only that but due to the highly efficient manner in which the Bucks birding community sends updates, it had been reported on the news group as having flown before I set off so had I had the common sense to check for updates before departing it would have saved me a journey and a thorough soaking!

However, I soon got an opportunity to make up for this when next morning I got a text from a local birding pal that a grey phal had been seen at Farmoor reservoir. Whereas Bucks reports everything via their yahoo news group, Oxford seems to be more of a clique when it comes to birding news with text messages sent round to the "inner circle" but less public reporting. Fortunately, thanks to this contact I was often able to pick up the news and, although the initial report was also on Bird Guides, he was able to confirm via text that the bird was still present mid morning so I arranged my work so that I could nip out to Farmoor at lunch time to maximise my chances of connecting with this bird.

I arrived at lunch time, at the same time as another birder from Swindon, and we walked together to the west end of the causeway where the bird had been reported. We were fortunate enough to meet Mr. Farmoor himself (Nic Hallam - www.farmoor-birding.com) who told us exactly where the bird was. He also pointed out a leucistic house martin that was flying around which looked like some amazing ghost martin with pale brown feathers where it should be blue. The phalarope itself was sheltering behind the pump station inlet on Farmoor II, being buffeted by quite strong waves in a strong wind. Even though the bird was only a few metres away it was bobbing up and down so much that it was rather difficult to take any decent photos though I did manage this rather blurry one just holding the camer in my hand with no use of the scope at all.

The Farmoor Phalarope bobbing in the waves, taken using a hand-held camera in windy conditions

As it turned out the bird was rather a long stayer and was still present till at least Sunday evening. I went back there on Sunday afternoon with my two year old son, L and in much better conditions I managed to take the shot below, again without a scope. As the bird was constantly moving it was very difficult to photograph using traditional digiscoping methods though, as Nic Hallam mentions in his blog, this must be one of the most photographed phalaropes of all time with countless excellent shots up on Bird Guides taken from point blank range with huge lenses.

The Phalarope again in calmer conditions

There was also a very confiding dunlin on the causeway who was more cooperative in standing still whilst I digiscoped it.

An obliging dunlin.

I was pleased to connect with this enchanting grey phalarope and with the recent red-necked in Gloucestershire that just leaves the Wilson's still outstanding. It's one more tick for the year list with 200 surely within my grasp now.

199: grey phalarope