After my successful Devon trip last time, there are a few local trips to report this time plus one longer excursion. I've been concentrating on my county year list and consequently have made lots of little trips out to try and find various birds. I generally try to get out for an hour or two at lunch-time each day even if it's just down to the local patch.
On Friday 20th a report came late afternoon over the pagers of a great white egret at Otmoor. It wasn't convenient to go then so I decided to head down there the next morning with L, my two-year old son in tow to see if I could find it. It had been reported as still present first thing that morning and en route I even had a phone call from a fellow birder who was at Otmoor saying that the bird was still present and also that the Otmoor bittern was out in the open and showing well. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived the egret had flown off though I did manage to see the bittern. There were also three little egrets which had initially been accompanying the great white egret and who remained after it had gone. I was disappointed to have missed the GWE (by about 30 minutes!) though it wouldn't have been a county lifer as I saw the one at Farmoor last year. Nevertheless I was pleased to have connected with the bittern which was a county first for me. In fact my fellow county lister JC who has many years experience of birding in Oxon only saw his first county bittern when he saw this one earlier on in the year.
A record shot of the hidden bittern. It was actually a really showy bird and there are some great photos of it out in the open on the Otmoor Birding site.
A record shot of the little egrets, though small consolation for dipping on the great white.
One of the over-wintering county birds that I had been struggling with was brambling: it has been a very poor year for brambling with it hard to find any in the county. When therefore I saw that some had been seen at South Stoke at the Withymead Nature Reserve I was keen to see if I could find them. Withymead is actually just the extended garden and grounds of a private house which has been turned into a mini nature reserve. Viewing is by appointment only but I rang up to speak to the owner who said that the bramblings had gone but he would give me a call if they returned. True to his word about a week later I got a call from him saying that a single female had been on the feeders that morning. I hastily arranged a family outing around a trip there: my VLW (very lovely wife) wanted to be dropped off at the garden centre en route and I took B (my younger daughter) and L with me to Withymead. They initially stayed in the car whilst I met the proprietor who took me to where the feeders could be viewed. The bird was coming and going periodically and wasn't not currently showing so we had to wait for about a quarter of an hour before it turned up again. After that we were given a tour of the reserve which included an interesting variety of habitat including woodland, river bank and reed beds.
A week later, I was determined to see the green sandpiper which was over-wintering at Cassington gravel pits so I decided to get up early (6:30) on Sunday and nip out there before the rest of the family was up and about, so as not to interfere with family time too much. It was a rather gloomy and overcast start to the day but as I walked around the main lake I heard the piping alarm of the sandpiper and saw it zig-zagging over the lake. Pleased to have connected so quickly I had a look around elsewhere but there was little of note apart from two oystercatchers on one of the side pits, my first of the year for the county. Back home, once the rest of the famiy was up I offered to take L for a little trip to see the trucks and diggers at Dix pit to give my VLW some free time. L likes this as he can sit in the car looking at the passing trucks and playing "beep beep" (pretending to drive the car) whilst I scan the lake. Today there were quite a few birds of interest, some of which had moved over to Dix from Farmoor: a great northern diver was hunting at the back of the pit, the two first winter scaup were near the island, the red-head smew was still about and a male ruddy duck was lurking in amongst some pochards. I was particularly pleased about the ruddy duck as I'd had only a very distant view previously and this county year tick had previously been a tiny bit suspect.
On Tuesday morning I decided to have another go at finding a county merlin so I got up early and arrived at Otmoor shortly after 7am, deciding to come in from the Noke end. It was a rather grey and murky start to the day and I began by scanning the mounds at the back of Ashgrave. Quite quickly I had a distant brown blob which looked the right size, shape and colour for a merlin. Pleased to have connected so quickly I proceeded to walk in towards the first screen. There was actually very little around apart from a couple of calling cetti's warblers, annoyingly hidden deep within the undergrowth. By the first screen I heard the familiar cry of some curlew and saw a flock of about 25 flying in and landing close by the edge of the reed bed.
A record shot of some of the curlew flock
On the way back I had a quick look at the mounds to see if I could see the merlin again. The light by this time was much better and I was surprised to see the brown blob in exactly the same place as before. On closer inspection I realised that my supposed merlin was in fact a strange-shaped lump of earth. Interestingly enough, if I hadn't had another look I would now have merlin ticked on the the county year list so it just shows how precarious long-distance ID's can be.
I had suggested that my VLW might be interested in visiting her sister over in Milton Keynes this week in order to have some time away from L, whom I would nobly take and go off somewhere. Specifically I had in mind a trip up to Eyebrook reservoir in Leicestershire where there had been a green-winged teal staying on and off over the winter. We had arranged to go on Thursday but in the proceeding two days there were no reports of the GWT being seen there so I was starting to think that it might be a wasted journey. However on Thursday morning I had a quick look on Bird Guides and fortunately someone had seen it the previous day but had only posted it late in the evening. Buoyed by this knowledge we set off. I dropped my VLW off at her sisters and we then drove for about an hour to get to the reservoir. The reservoir is rather large but the bird had been frequenting the north end so I made my way along the road keeping a look out for teal. I soon spotted some on my side of the water and decided to stop there to have a close scan. Within a couple of minutes I was fortunate to have found the bird which happened to be directly opposite me on the far bank. I was contemplating some digiscoping but there was a severe heat haze it it would have come out as little more than a blur. I decided to head round to the opposite bank to see if I could get a better view even and soon relocated the bird quite close by. As I was setting up my digiscoping gear I saw a teal fly off low over the water and after that I couldn't find the bird so I guess that it had chosen that moment to move further down the reservoir. Apart from that there were a couple of redshank and the usual mix of ducks that you might expect. I did have a look for the smew which had been seen recently but couldn't find them.
The Eyebrook Green-winged teal. There was too much heat-haze for me to attempt a digiscoped shot so instead here is a photo taken by someone else a few days earlier. © John Turner
The national year list has had very few additions since the last entry, partly because I've been concentrating on the Oxon list and many of the birds I still need for it I've already seen nationally. Still it was great to get another lifer in the form of the green-winged teal which was another one of my target lifers for this year.
National 2009 Year List
132 brambling 22/02/2009 Withymead NR
133 green sandpiper 01/03/2009 Cassington GP
134 green-winged teal (Lifer) 05/03/2009 Eyebrook Reservoir, Leics.
I've managed to make some progress with the Oxon year list though I am now some 8 birds behind my fellow county lister (he's actually seen 9 birds that I haven't but I was lucky enough to get ring-necked parakeet which he hasn't yet seen). I've realised that I am never going to keep up with him, partly because of his greater birding experience but also because he is able to devote far more time than I am to going out and getting everything. He's basically got everything that one can reasonably expect in Oxon for this time of year whereas I'm still struggling with some staples such as: water rail, cetti's, jack snipe, merlin, woodcock and Med. gull. I am more or less resigned to not seeing the jack snipe and merlin for this seaon though will have one more go next week. After that I'll have to try again in December.
Oxon 2009 Year List
107 treecreeper 18/02/2009 Wytham Wood
108 bittern (County Lifer) 21/02/2009 Otmoor
109 little egret 21/02/2009 Otmoor
110 brambling 22/02/2009 Withymead NR
111 green sandpiper 01/03/2009 Cassington GP
112 oystercatcher 01/03/2009 Cassington GP
113 curlew 03/03/2009 Otmoor
Unofficial max. possible Oxon total is 132 according to my reckoning.