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.
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.
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.