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