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

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