After the excitement of the waxwings it was back to county year listing and with this in mind I'd drawn up a target list of winter species that I wanted to see within the county as a priority. One of these was short-eared owl, by no means an easy county bird but I was informed that if one goes to East Hendred Downs then it's possible to get them there as the county boundary actually runs along the end of Bury Down in Berkshire which is a know hot spot for SEO's. Indeed my fellow county year lister JC (who must be quite a few ticks ahead of me by now) saw a couple up there a week or so ago so a few days ago I went up there to see if I could pick them up.
It was my first time visiting East Hendred and I found it very windy and decidedly bleak up on the downs. I was greeted by the cheery sight of a pair of stonechats as soon as I arrived as well as a couple of red kites (my first of the year) flying over the nearby fields. With nothing else showing I decided to stray across the county border into Bury Down to see what I could see before returning to the Oxon side to see if I could find any SEO's as it got later. There was precious little on the Berkshire side either apart from more stonechats, a single kestrel, the odd fly-over meadow pipit and a single yellowhammer. There were no owls to be seen on Bury Down that afternoon and none back on the Oxon side either. I thought back to last summer and how it had been alive with birds and bird song then, a remarkable contrast to now. Still there was something reassuringly wintery about the landscape and it's bleakness which I rather enjoyed.
Interestingly enough, that very afternoon, someone managed to see a short-eared owl in Burgess Field Nature Reserve, which is part of my local patch. They used to be spotted regularly there but had not been seen now for several years so it was encouraging to have a confirmed sighting so close to home and I hoped that it would mean that I wouldn't need another trip up to the wilderness that was East Hendred, until the weather warmed up a little at least. The next day therefore I went out on to Port Meadow to check what was on the floods (a few redshank, ruff and dunlin) before heading over to Burgess Field. Whilst there I met up with a long-time birder who used to have Port Meadow as his local patch and visit it every day before he moved elsewhere (so you might say that he was my predecessor). We decided to look for the owl together as well as seeing if we could flush a jack snipe from the pools. Unfortunately it was rather dry and not very snipey so we had no luck with the latter objective though I did see a juvenile sparrowhawk whilst trying. At the end of the bog stomping session we met the lady who'd seen the owl the previous night. After a brief chat we headed off in opposite directions and almost immediately the short-eared owl flew up in front of us, turned round and headed rapidly off over the railway line that runs alongside the reserve. A most pleasing sight for ourselves and also a couple of other birders who'd come out to look for the bird and saw it at the same time as we did.
The next day was Saturday and as usual I had L, our two year old son, for the morning. I was going to drag him around Otmoor once more but a (the?) reader of this blog sent me an e-mail saying that there was a pink-footed goose by the Thames at Streatley in Berks. Consequently I thought that it would be more interesting to pop down to take a look at it rather than going to Otmoor so we headed off in that direction. We stopped briefly at the cress beds at Ewelme to see if we could see either the water rail or the over-wintering green sandpiper but all we saw was a grey wagtail. We went on to Streatley, parking by the church as I'd been instructed, and we walked along the Thames path north towards Cleeve Lock where the goose was supposed to be located along with some egyptian geese. Some 20 minutes or so later, with a somewhat muddy push chair, we arrived at the field north of the lock in which the goose was supposed to be located. I scanned the field and could see no geese and only a dog walker with his two dogs in the middle of the field. I did also notice someone with a camcorder in the field filming something across the river and a quick glance revealed some geese on the opposite bank so I made my way closer and discovered that the pink-footed goose was present on the other side of the river together with seven egyptian geese. Now it so happens that the county boundary runs along the river so by being on that side the birds happened to be in Oxon, which was most fortuitous for my county listing efforts. I took some digiscoping shots and fortunately the sun was shining and the birds were comparatively close, separated as they were by just the width of the river.
The pink-footed goose straying over into Oxon.
On the way back I called JC and told him about the bird. He quickly headed off in his car and in fact I met him back at the church as I was about to leave so he managed to get the bird also.
It was nice to see such a comparatively rare county bird and very lucky that it was on the right side of the border. The year list is ticking along nicely at present and I even managed finally to catch up with the Blenheim Mandarins. They were skulking at the back of their usual pond near Combe Gate at Blenheim and when I arrive they quickly moved under the over-hanging trees making them virtually impossible to see. I can now understand how I could easily have missed them in the past.
2009 National Year List
084 red kite 15/01/2009 East Hendred Downs, Oxford
085 yellowhammer 15/01/2009 Bury Downs, Berks
086 short-eared owl 16/01/2009 Burgess Field NR
087 grey wagtail 17/01/2009 Ewelme Cress Beds, Oxon
088 egyptian goose 17/01/2009 Goring, Oxon
089 pink-footed goose 17/01/2009 Goring, Oxon
090 siskin 19/01/2009 Oxford Canal, North Oxford
091 mandarin duck 20/01/2009 Blenheim, Combe Gate
The Oxon county list is three less than this (bittern, waxwing and yellowhammer).