Last Saturday I was contemplating where to take L, our two year old son, on our now regular Saturday morning outings when I read on Bird Guides that there was a Mealy Redpoll knocking around in Berkshire. Some research on the internet showed that it was located along the bank of the river Kennet at the Padworth GP and would not be too far a walk from where one could park. Whilst this was a longer trip than the usual local ones I take L on, I reckoned that there was enough time to get down there, have a little look around and get back in time for lunch. However the journey down did take longer than I had estimated, being about an hour from Oxford so I was a little behind schedule. I eventually found somewhere to park down a very bumpy road and with L installed in his all-terrain buggy we set off towards the river where we soon came across several birders with long camera lenses trained in the alder trees so I knew that I was in the right place. In amongst them was Jerry O'Brian a well known Berkshire birder and photographer whom I'd met a couple of times previously last year. Just as I arrived the birds had moved to a new set of trees a few yards down the bank and so we moved off to take a look. It was not easy viewing as the birds were constantly on the move and partially obscured by twigs and branches but I caught a view of a bird with much more marked wing bars and a "frosted" appearance before they once more took flight heading much further off down the river. After standing around chatting for a bit I walked with L along the river a bit to see if I could relocate them but they were not to be seen nearby. All things considered I was rather lucky to have connected with them as had I arrived a few minutes later they would have gone. So not as good a view as I would ideally have liked but after all a tick's a tick!
With early March traditionally quite a dead time of year for birding, what with most of the winter visitors having left and the spring birds not yet arriving, I thought that it would be a good opportunity to catch up on some of the birds I was still missing on my Oxon county year list, namely merlin, jack snipe, water rail, mediterranean gull and woodcock. It was getting rather late for some of them but nevertheless I would see what I could do.
With this in mind on Tuesday morning I got up at 6am in order to head down to the Ewelme cress beds near Benson in south Oxfordshire in order to see if I could find a water rail. I had been in touch via e-mail with a Benson birder who told me where to look for the rails. The weather was rather grey and drizzly as I arrived and made my way over to the willow screen hide and settled down for a wait. It was rather uncomfortable as one had to crouch in order to remain hidden behind the screen but after only 10 minutes the rail came out from its hiding place under some overhanging branches long enough for me to get a good look. I decided that I would see if I could get a digiscoped photo if it came out again and very carefully tried to move apart some of the willow stems so that I could have a large enough gap to photograph through. The light was pretty poor and the restricted gap meant that there was even less light coming through so even at ISO 1600 the shutter speed was only 1/30th. Fortunately water rails don't move too fast and the rail was rather showy, coming out several times even right out into the open so I was able to get quite a few good shots.
The Ewelme cress bed water rail
The following day I was down on my local patch at Port Meadow. This time of year I do my best to get down there once a day so as to maximise my chances of seeing all the passage waders that are coming through. The Meadow tends to be a stopping off point but often the birds don't stay for very long as it is all rather exposed so it pays to make regular visits. The highlight of the visit was my first ringed plover of the year which was quite a long way away in misty conditions and poor light but I had a go at digiscoping it at x60 mag and was pleasantly surprised at how comparatively well the photo came out.
Very distant ringed plover digisoped in the mist - the first of the year for Port Meadow and also for me
Later that same afternoon I decided to make another trip over to Farmoor Reservoir to see if I could find a mediterranean gull in the roost. I had e-mailed the local patch birder there about coming over and despite not having had a reply I decided to have a go anyway. Just as I was walking along the causeway I got a text from him saying that there was a med. gull in the roost. Apparently he'd not yet checked his e-mail that day but had been up there anyway. We spent a very pleasant hour or so in wonderful "flat" light sifting through the gulls. He managed to find two birds: a smart adult in summer plumage and a second winter which was still getting it's hood. I had a go at digiscoping the birds but at that range it was very difficult so in the end I resorted to videoing and subsequently video-grabbing which came out surprisingly well given the distance that they were away.
Video grab of adult mediterranean gull in the Farmoor roost
Video footage of the adult med. gull. It's best viewed in High Quality mode. To do this click here and the click on "HQ" at the bottom right of the video screen.
The day after I decided to have a go down on Otmoor to try for woodcock and jack snipe. The former were supposed to frequent a certain field there, roosting under the bushes and I was going to tramp around the marshy Pill Ground for the jack snipe. I combined this visit with my daily run so went in my running gear rather than wellies etc. I knew that it was going to be rather marshy but I was not quite prepared for just how bad it would be. The woodcock hunting was fine: I ran all over the field looking under the bushes and managed to find a dozen snipe, four pheasants and a brace of red-legged partridges but alas no woodcock. I then headed over to the Pill Ground, stopping off at the car for a snack as I was starting to feel a little light-headed. However I soon discovered that I'd foolishly left my snack behind so I would just have to soldier on. I'd only once before been to the Pill Ground and never to the pool on the west side so I was totally unprepared for the extensive reed bed that one had to wade through to get there. I did manage to flush a water rail whilst slogging through it all though. The pool itself had no distinct edges so it was a case of splashing around the edge in the hope of flushing a jack snipe. I managed to work my way around the pool, occasionally accidentally stepping into much deeper pools that went up to mid way up my thigh but there wasn't a bird of any kind to be seen though I did catch a glimpse of a fox. Soggy and by now somewhat disheartened, I made my way over to the east pool and started slogging around it but I soon decided that I was too tired, hungry and wet to carry on so made my way back to the car and back home for a shower and some lunch.
By now I have lost count of the number of marshes and bogs that I have slogged around looking for jack snipe: they have definitely become a bit of a county bogey bird for me. Nevertheless, it had been a productive few days birding: another life tick in the form of the mealy redpoll and three more county year ticks with a couple of my troublesome year birds now ticked off. I am more or less resigned to not getting merlin, jack snipe or woodcock though I did look up the lastest departure times for them in the local literature and they can still apparently be around until the start of April so it may be worth another try or two.
2009 National List
135 mealy redpoll (Lifer) 07/03/2009 Padworth GP, Berks
136 water rail 10/03/2009 Ewelme Cress Beds, Oxon
137 ringed plover 11/03/2009 Port Meadow
138 mediterranean gull 11/03/2009 Farmoor Reservoir
2009 County List
114 water rail 10/03/2009 Ewelme Cress Beds, Oxon
115 ringed plover 11/03/2009 Port Meadow
116 mediterranean gull 11/03/2009 Farmoor Reservoir