Wednesday, 18 February 2009

A Trip To Devon

One of my target birds that I wanted to see this year was cirl bunting and I was recently inspired by reading another blog (Ash's Bird Blog) to consider going down to Devon to see if I could find this lovely but highly localised bird. In addition I was sent a copy of Lee Evans' Birding Diary for January (as I'd provided one of the photos within it). As part of his amazingly hectic birding schedule he'd spent an afternoon down in Devon, connecting with a great variety of birds in a comparatively small area. With this in mind I started to plan a trip down there. I soon gave up the idea of persuading the rest of the family that they wanted to have a little day trip down there it was decided that I would head down there on the Monday evening after dinner, stay overnight there so I could have a full day's birding before heading back home in th evening.

Things didn't start out too well as there was a huge traffic jam on the M5 just a few miles from my destination and I spent a frustrating hour and a half sitting more or less stationary in the car. I eventually arrived at my overnight accommodation in Kenton, a small village close to Powderham where several of my target birds were located. I decided to stay at the Chi Restaurant which had very nice rooms and very reasonably priced though at 08:30 breakfast was served too late for my purposes as I was out of the door by 07:30. In Powderham the birds that I was after were a spoonbill on the castle lake and some nearby cattle egrets before heading down to Dawlish Warren for the over-wintering female surf scoter. I started out in Starcross checking out a flooded pool near the car park where there were some curlew, a few black-tailed godwits and a little egret, before having a quick look out into the estuary where the tide was coming in. There were several red-breasted mergansers out on the river as well as a diving little grebe. Down on the shore line there was a flock of turnstone busily working over a seaweed patch. An oystercatcher flew along the river calling loudly.

Curlews waiting it out on a flooded field at high tide

A flock of turnstone feeding on the shore line.

I next took a small back road which went around the back of Powderham Castle. From here it was possible to see the lake within the grounds but despite careful scrutiny I couldn't find the spoonbill, only several more little egrets, quite a large flock of shelduck as well as a good variety of other ducks including several pintails. Disappointed, I carried on round past Powderham church to the location where the cattle egrets had been seen the previous day. I pulled up in a layby and soon found the birds consorting with a small herd of cattle. From this vantage point I could also look out to the river Exe estuary where I could just make out a large number of different wading birds. There were large numbers of brent geese, dunlin, avocet, oystercatchers as well as quite a number of birds which I couldn't make out. I did contemplate going back to the church from which there was a footpath leading down there but I only hadn't limited time and these weren't my main target birds so I decided to leave it. Instead I tried to find the Turf Inn which also overlooked the same area but I must have taken a wrong turn because I found myself going along an unmade track when I came up against a digger re-levelling the surface. It was going to be hours to get through so I turned around and headed back to Powderham. Back in Powderham I went in the front entrance of the Castle to see if I could find the spoonbill but it turned out not to be open to the public as I had hoped so I left again and decided to head off to Dawlish Warren, noting a flock of brent geese on the golf course as I left Starcross.

By now it was quite sunny with only a moderate breeze and it was most pleasant by the sea. An initial scan around found several great crested grebes and a couple of red-throated divers as well as a cormorant very close in which had just caught a large flat fish which it was struggling to get down it's throat. Comically when it was half way down, it had a huge flat bulge in its throat though it seemed to manage to get it all down eventually. There were several rock pipits hopping around on the sea wall. Scanning around more I couldn't seem to locate any scoter other than some very distant black blobs. By now another birder had joined me and we scanned together for a while. I was trying to work out what the distant birds were and went off to a sheltered spot to get a better view whereas my companion stayed put. After a rather frustrating time I decided that the birds I was looking at were common scoter. As I walked back toward the car park I met up again with the other birder who informed me that he thought that he had found the surf scoter. I quickly had a look and it did indeed look like the bird. The sun was more or less in front of us now so that it was difficult to make out the colours but the profile of the bill clearly seen and was unmistakable.

Pleased to have connected with one of my target birds I was also interested to hear that the other birder had in fact seen the spoonbill that morning so I decided to head back there for another go. Some fifteen minutes later I was back down the small side road once more looking at the lake and this time there was a likely looking white bird. Unfortunately it was asleep with its head tucked in but a few minutes later it woke up to reveal it's enormous spoon-like bill. It flew around for a minute or so before settling on the small island where I managed a few digiscoped record shots.

The spoonbill at Powderham Castle Lake

Very pleased now to have located all my target birds so far I decided that it was time to head south towards Broadsands and Paignton where my two remaining birds were located. I stopped off at a local shop to buy lunch (a pasty, since I was in the west country) and headed off. Unfortunately there was a lot of traffic around the Tourquay turn-off and also the road that I wanted was closed so we were diverted along some minor road before being abandoned to our fate in the middle of some housing estate. Fortunately my instinct as to where I was proved to be correct and I eventually found myself pulling up at Broadsands Car Park to look for cirl bunting. I had been told that the birds were located in the "second car park" but it took a few minutes to figure out what this meant: there was an over-flow car park off to the left which was closed off at this time of year. I started to wander around and set up my scope to scan the far bushes where after a few minutes I saw the distinctive head pattern of a male cirl bunting. At this point a cyclist pulled up in a day-glo fluorescent top right by the location where the birds were. He seemed to be a birder as he got out some binoculars. Given that the birds were probably not going to come out again I thought that I would go over to chat with him anyway. It turned out that he was there for the cirl buntings as well and that his brother-in-law had been there yesterday and taken some good photos. He also reckoned that the birds would come back despite his standing so close so we waited together. Some seed had been put out nearby and sure enough after only a short while birds started to come back down. There were several chaffinches, dunnocks, a couple of reed buntings and a few cirl buntings all feeding on the grain. I didn't really do their closesness full justice with my digiscoping but below is a sample photo of a male bird.

A Cirl Bunting feeding on grain in Broadsands Beach Car Park

I next decided to head up to the coastal path to east my lunch and to see what was out on the sea. Apparently there'd been some good birds there previously but when I went to have a look all I could find was one distant flock of mixed birds which definitely included some velvet scoter, recognised by their white wing patches.

It was time to go for my last bird, a male penduline tit which had been spending some time in the Clennan Valley lakes but the last couple of days had re-located to a small boating lake just across the road. I drove to the the boating lake car park and had a look around. I'd been told that the bird was very active, ripping the bull rush heads to shreds as it fed but could see no sign of it. I did meet a fellow local birder who suggested that I look back on the original lakes and he explained how the bird would feed on the bull rush heads on the first lake but would feed down by the base of the reeds on the second lake and would be relatively secretive in doing so. He also kindly guided me to the best place to part in the nearby estate, thus avoiding the car park charges. It was very boggy and I was starting to wish that I'd worn my walking boots instead of my everyday shoes as I made my way over to the lakes. After a bit of searching I found the second lake and started looking around. I soon spotted a bird flying around in the reeds but on closer inspection it turned out to be an incredibly blue-grey looking warbler and I realised that I was looking at the (probable) Siberian chiffchaff which had been seen there recently. Pleased with this I kept on searching and after a short while I found the penduline tit skulking around the base of the reeds as it fed. As I watched it I was surprised at just how small it was and I later read that it is smaller than a blue tit. I managed a few digiscoped shots but it was always on the wrong side of the reeds to get a clear image. I watched it for several minutes before a nearby little grebe startled it and it flew off.

The penduline tit in skulking mode at the base of the reeds.

Having connected successfully with all my target birds I contemplated what to do next. There was a recently-seen glaucous gull that had been seen on the other side of the River Exe which I could possibly go for on the way back but it was getting late and I was quite tired by this stage so I decided instead to head home. Fortunately there were no traffic problems and the journey back was uneventful.

So a great trip down to Devon with four new lifers for me as well as a good number of national year list ticks. If I was being really fussy I could bemoan the fact that I'd missed bar tailed godwit (which were probably on the Exe estuary but were too distant to see) and although I'd seen all three different scoters I'd not see any of the rarer grebes but this is really nit picking and I was more than delighted with the birds that I'd managed to see.

2009 National Year List
A wonder addition of 16 ticks to the national year list with a fantastic four new lifers.

116 little egret 17/02/2009 Starcross, Devon
117 red-breasted merganser 17/02/2009 Starcross, Devon
118 turnstone 17/02/2009 Starcross, Devon
119 oystercatcher 17/02/2009 Starcross, Devon
120 cattle egret 17/02/2009 Powderham, Devon
121 avocet 17/02/2009 Powderham, Devon
122 tree creeper 17/02/2009 Powderham, Devon
123 red-throated diver 17/02/2009 Dawlish Warren, Devon
124 rock pipit 17/02/2009 Dawlish Warren, Devon
125 common scoter 17/02/2009 Dawlish Warren, Devon
126 surf scoter (L) 17/02/2009 Dawlish Warren, Devon
127 spoonbill
(L)17/02/2009 Powderham, Devon
128 cirl bunting
(L)17/02/2009 Broadsands, Devon
129 velvet scoter 17/02/2009 Broadsands, Devon
131 penduline tit
(L) 17/02/2009 Clennan Valley Lakes, Devon
132 chiffchaff (Sib.) 17/02/2009 Clennan Valley Lakes, Devon

L = life tick

Monday, 16 February 2009

A Whooper Swan at Cote

Last Saturday a Bewick's swan was posted as having been seen at Cote, over in West Oxfordshire. This was the area where one had over-wintered last year and which I went to see with L (my two-year old son) in tow. Therefore, that Sunday morning I suggested a little drive over there for those who were interested. I promised that there would be no need even to get out of the car for people who came along so as well as L (who had little choice in the matter), B my eleven year old daughter also elected to come along.

I'd been given fairly detailed instructions from the finder of the bird as to where to locate it and my fellow county lister JC had already ticked it earlier that morning (unencumbered as he was by the inertia of getting two children ready to go out!) so it was in an optimistic frame of mind that I set off. We stopped off briefly at the West Oxford Sailing Club lake at Standlake where there were 5 red-crested pochard still present and it was some half an hour later that we arrived at the appropriate spot.

I could only see five swans from the road-side, one of which was asleep but as I scanned about I did notice a herd of deer in the field with a very nice grey partridge close by, another year tick for me. There were also a few fieldfares and skylarks flying overhead. The swans that were awake were all mutes but eventually the sleeping one woke up and showed itself to be a yellow-billed swan. However it looked like a whooper swan to me rather than a Bewick's so I made a couple of calls to JC (who hadn't actually looked that closely and would come back) and the original finder (who had only seen it very distantly the previous day). All the swans had moved down into a dip so that they were hidden from sight from the road side by the time JC returned so we walked down into the field behind a hedge to get a better view. From there we saw a flock of about 50 mute swans and the whooper (which it definitely was) at the back of the flock. I took a few photos and then we left the birds to their grazing.

The Cote whooper swan

I later heard from the original finder that the bird that he'd seen the previous day had been smaller than the whooper so there may in fact have been two birds present though unfortunately there was no sign of either bird the next day.

On the way back we stopped off at Dix Pit where apart from the usual ducks there was the very unusual sight of a great northern diver there. Presumably it was one of the two Farmoor birds, which had hopped over to Dix for a change. Two kingfishers also gave a brief but dazzling view as they flew past.

Finally there is a belated tick for a ruddy duck which I saw at the previous month at Dix Pit. At the time I had scoped the bird distantly from across the Pit in rather hazy viewing conditions. The size, brown colouring and white markings across the cheek looked correct as did the pointy-up tail and it was diving frequently as they tend to do. The only thing which made me hesitate was that instead of it appearing to have very little neck, it had a long stretched out one. More recently I discovered a photo of a ruddy duck with its neck stretched out in just the manner that I saw. To back this up, there had been sightings of two ruddy duck at Dix throughout the month of January so I am now confident in giving myself the retrospective tick.

2009 National Year List
113 grey partridge 15/02/2009 Cote
114 whooper swan 15/02/2009 Cote
115 ruddy duck 24/01/2009 Dix Pit

2009 Oxon Year List
104 grey partridge 15/02/2009 Cote
105 whooper swan 15/02/2009 Cote
106 ruddy duck 24/01/2009 Dix Pit

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Abingdon Waxwings

A week or so ago, I was staring out the window looking for work inspiration when I got a phone call from JC, a fellow Oxon birder who is very keenly working on his Oxon county year list. He'd found a pair of waxwings in Abingdon and I needed no further encouragement to get down there. Within about 30 minutes I was pulling up in the pouring rain in a rather non-descript side-road where I found JC and another birder. Fortunately the two birds were still there though they were rather mobile and kept moving from tree to tree. There was no obvious source of food there which could explain their restlessness. JC explained that he'd been down there for several hours scouring the side roads in the vicinity in the wake of a report of two birds in someone's back garden there the previous day and his hard work had paid off. I could see that I had a lot to learn about county listing and that the really serious players were far more dedicated that I was. Still I was glad to pick up on the fruits of his labours!

I spent the next half an hour or so struggling to photograph the two birds in the pouring rain which is not at all condusive to digiscoping. I was trying to position the car so that I could stand under the opened boot as a shelter (we have a hatchback) and take my photos without the gear getting too wet but the birds kept moving so in the end I stayed put and waited for them to come into view. The resultant photos were taken through the branches of some intervening trees but were the best I could manage in the circumstances. Unfortunately the birds lingered for just a bit more than a day and then moved on so I didn't have another opportunity to photograph them in better conditions.

The Abingdon waxwings

Apart from the waxwings because of the weather it's been a bit of a struggle to add new ticks. The snow and subsequent flooding when it all melted has made many places inaccessible: for example conditions are too wet or flooded to try for jack snipe in the usual places. I did manage to find a kingfisher on my local patch on Port Meadow whilst trudging through the snow. I was also lucky enough to have a ring-necked parakeet (presumably the resident one in Jericho) fly over me as I was in Summertown on a shopping trip. JC also kindly called me out to try for a bittern which has been over-wintering in Abingdon: someone had flushed it into a small reed bed but when we went to take a look it had moved on from where it had originally flown to. Still we had a pleasant couple of hours splashing around in a bog!

The county list has caught up on a couple of birds (waxwing and shelduck) that previously I only had on the national list.

2009 National Year List
109 kingfisher 05/02/2009 Port Meadow
110 red-legged partridge 07/02/2009 Cassington GP
111 little owl 14/02/2009 Farmoor Reservoir
112 ring-necked parakeet 14/02/2009 Summertown

2009 County Year List
098 kingfisher 05/02/2009 Port Meadow
099 red-legged partridge 07/02/2009 Cassington GP
100 waxwing 09/02/2009 Abingdon (Boxhill Rd)
101 shelduck 11/02/2009 Port Meadow
102 little owl 14/02/2009 Farmoor Reservoir
103 ring-necked parakeet 14/02/2009 Summertown

Thursday, 5 February 2009

A Farmoor Iceland Gull

No major birding trips to report on since the Slimbridge outing, with the proper winter weather and a bit more work than usual meaning that my birding has been confined to local trips.

As is now usual at the weekends, I get to take L, our two year old son out on a birding trip on a Saturday morning whilst my VLW (very lovely wife) helps our younger daughter with her homework. Two weekends ago I did a little circuit out to the west of Oxford, first to Dix Pit which L enjoys as he can look at all the trucks and diggers whilst I look at the birds. I was hoping for some ruddy duck as well as the red-head smew but all I managed was a very distant and hazy view of something which could have been a ruddy duck but I wasn't happy enough with the view. Next on to Standlake to the West Oxford Sailing Club lake where a large number of red-crested pochard had recently been reported. Sure enough when I pulled up I managed to count 43 which is an amazing total for what is a comparatively small lake. One could view them from the comfort of the car I only had to get out as L wanted to use his potty! Finally on to Tadpole Bridge which is a know hot spot for tree sparrows. L was by this time asleep so I parked by the bridge and nipped out. Pretty quickly I found a few and got back into the car to head home. I later learnt that there are some feeders in the car park and that someone else saw at least 25 birds there the same day.

I've taken to going running each day now and now allow myself a couple of hours off at lunch time for my run and lunch. Naturally enough I take my bins on my run and often (or rather always) choose to go somewhere interesting bird-wise. Last week I had a couple of runs at Otmoor: very muddy but I managed to see the over-wintering ring-tail hen harrier and also a barn owl quartering over the reed bed. I've yet to catch up with the bittern that's been seen there but there's still time.

The following weekend I decided to take L up to Churn on the downs in order to catch up with some downland birds for the year list. I was particularly keen to see a merlin there as well as grey and red-legged partridges. The weather was surprisingly nice that morning with a bit of sun and not too much wind: it can be pretty dismal up on the downs in poor conditions. Despite careful scanning of all the fence posts and fields I couldn't find any merlin nor any partridges. All I managed was a single corn bunting, a flock of 10 or so yellow hammers, a few stock doves, loads of lapwings, golden plover, starlings and a few kites. I did managed to take a few photos which came out ok.

A corn bunting

A yellow hammer

Another yellow hammer
A kite feeding on some carrion

This week the snow and ice has meant that I've not been able to go for a run though I have managed a walk most days. A trip to Otmoor looking for a merlin was unsuccessful. Yesterday, work meant that I was indoors for most of the day and when my cousin needed a lift to the station late afternoon I decided to bring my birding gear and head on up to Farmoor Reservoir afterwards. I wanted to have a look through the gull roost as a juvenile Iceland Gull having been found there yesterday by the "resident" patch worker and gull guru there. Several other birders had had the same idea so there were five of us trawling through the massed ranks of gulls looking for the bird. It wasn't until after 5pm when the light was really starting to go that someone found it. I did manage to see it and could make out the primaries though it was a rather dark bird and I am finding that in the half light I can no longer focus as well as I used to so it was not easy to discern. Still a tick's a tick and it was nice to see such a comparatively uncommon gull in Oxon. All we need now is for a glaucous to turn up.

The year list has felt as though it has rather stalled over the last few days with just the very welcome iceland gull sighting since the end of January.

2009 National Year List:
101 peregrine 23/01/2009 Port Meadow
102 red-crested pochard 24/01/2009 Standlake, West Oxford Sailing Lake
103 tree sparrow 24/01/2009 Tadpole Bridge
104 hen harrier 26/01/2009 Otmoor
105 barn owl 29/01/2009 Otmoor
106 skylark 30/01/2009 Port Meadow
107 corn bunting 31/01/2009 Churn
108 iceland gull 04/02/2009 Farmoor Reservoir

2009 Oxon Year List stands at 97 with the addition of the same birds as above as well as a yellow hammer from the Churn trip which I already have on the national list.