Friday, 15 May 2009

Hot Tern Action and a Spoonbill County Mega!

I'd noticed with interest the report of a white-winged black tern at Staines Reservoir on Tuesday: it had stayed all day and I'd been vaguely thinking that it would be nice to go and see it. I'm not a great one for long-distance twitching but a trip to Staines was certainly an acceptable distance for me to go and see a bird though I've not yet got to the stage of travelling hundreds of miles to twitch some mega. That night I remembered that I needed to head down that way anyway in order to pick up my laptop from my brother-in-law who'd been mending it for me so when the tern appeared on Bird Guides again the next morning I decided to give it a go. I also volunteered to take L, our two year old son, with me: this would give my VLW (very lovely wife) some valuable time away from him and earn me brownie points too! With all this stacking up in my favour I set off with high hopes.

The journey there was uneventful and there were plenty of other birders around who told me that the bird was still there and I was soon watching the absolutely cracking tern flying around, often quite close to the causeway. I did contemplate digiscoping it though there are railings all the way along the causeway which are too high to digiscope comfortably over so I didn't try in the end. To compensate I found some great photos by Andrew Moon on Bird Guides which he said I could use.

Three photos of the fantastic Staines white-winged black tern © Andrew Moon

The next day the weather was overcast and gloomy with a wind from the South East, classic black tern weather and it wasn't long before I got a call from my fellow county year lister who was at Farmoor reservoir saying that he was getting some "hot tern action" (a phrase I'd coined a few weeks earlier whilst lamenting a lack of terns). I raced down there and was able to walk just a few yards from the car park up on to the east side of Farmoor II where I could scan across the reservoir. There were quite a number of Common Terns about but I eventually picked up a couple of the "dusky beauties" (as he'd called them). They're always wonderful birds to see though they were not going to be realistic digiscoping targets.

I was back at home congratulating myself on a quick and efficient county twitch when a few hours later I got a call saying that there were now two knot on the causeway at Farmoor, one in summer plumage. I decided to take L with me as he quite likes going to Farmoor to see the boats. We headed off and he soon fell asleep. At the car park I gave a quick call to the resident Farmoor bird gurus who informed me that the birds had moved around to the south west corner of Farmoor II so I drove round to Whitely Farm and leaving a sleeping L in the car, ascended the bank to find the birds not 50 yards away from me. The light was abysmal but I got some digiscoped record shots. I had a quick chat with some of the birders there and then headed back, feeling rather tired from all this travelling now. Just as I pulled up back home L woke up and said "come on daddy, let's go to the boats". He thought that we hadn't left yet and was rather puzzled that we weren't now going!

Early in the evening on the same day I got a call to say that now there was a grey plover on the causeway but I was just too tired to chase after it. I later heard that my fellow listers had ended up following it from Farmoor to Otmoor in order to secure the tick. Another confirmation that I am just not obsessed enough to be a true county lister!

The summer plumaged knot with a couple of dunlin behind it

The complete party of two knot and three dunlin

Despite the rapidly shrinking floods I had been persevering with Port Meadow, my local patch. It was rather heartbreaking to see it in its current state, compared to it's glory days last year when the flood waters never left. Still, the previous day there'd been a redshank and some ringed plover as reward for my continued efforts. On Friday morning after some overnight rain I went down there as usual to find four ringed plover and a common sandpiper. I was just making a quick scan of the fields to the north of the floods when I spotted a distant white bird. Thinking that it was a little egret I got my scope on to it whereupon I immediately realised that it was a spoonbill. It was located close to the large mound due north of the Burgess Field gate and it's large flat spoon-shaped bill was clearly visible with yellow markings on the end. The head had some ragged feathers around it which were probably it's breeding plumage "mane". I immediately put the camera on the scope and was zooming in in order to take a photo when the bird took off. It flew to my right (i.e. to the east) where it was at once lost to sight behind the trees that run along the Burgess Field ditch. Spoonbills are county megas with the last one apparently having been seen about ten years ago. Despite an extensive run all over the Meadow later that lunch-time and searching all likely ditches there was no sign of it. Others searched nearby Otmoor again with no luck.

The common sandpiper on the floods. Poor compensation for the missed record shot of the spoonbill but despite the gloomy conditions, this photo came out acceptably well

Two of the four ringed plover on the Meadow

My lists are moving along nicely and I have now nearly already reached my 2008 Oxon year total of 166. On the national list I am now just 5 ticks short of the 200 mark so there's a good chance that I might break my total from last year of 222. Spoonbill is not a national year tick for me as I saw one in Devon earlier in the year.

County Year List 2009
160 black tern 13/05/2009 Farmoor Reservoir
161 knot 13/05/2009 Farmoor Reservoir
162 spoonbill 15/05/2009 Port Meadow (OXON LIFER)

National (Including Ireland) Year List 2009
193 white-winged black tern 12/05/2009 Staines Reservoir (LIFER)
194 black tern 13/05/2009 Farmoor Reservoir
195 knot 13/05/2009 Farmoor Reservoir

Friday, 8 May 2009

It's all gone rather quiet

It's all gone rather quiet recently in the county. Whilst the usual summer birds are in and breeding away, there has been a dearth of passage migrants over the last couple of weeks. In particular, my local patch Port Meadow has had hardly a wader on it and the floods are fast drying out. I realise now that was rather spoilt last year for my first full year back at birding in that the floods in June topped up the Meadow flood waters so that they were there for the whole year. I suspect that this year, especially with a hot summer forecast, the Meadow will dry out and I will be left patchless for the second half of the year.

I've been going down to Otmoor one lunch-time a week to catch up with the birds that I need there. There was still reed warbler to get out of the ten warblers - I'd heard them on the local patch at the Trap Ground reed bed but they are impossible to see there. Also, I still needed marsh harrier and turtle dove. I've taken to combining the visit with my lunch-time run so I carry my binoculars with me and run around Otmoor, listening out for bird song as I go and scanning the reed bed for harriers when I get to there. A couple of recent trip there were successful in getting reed warbler along the main bridle path and some good views of a female marsh harrier hunting over the reed bed. So now I just need turtle dove from there and I'm "done" for Otmoor summer visitors.

Yesterday, I had just come back from another fruitless visit down to the Meadow when I realised that I'd not yet turned on my mobile. When I did I had several texts from various local birders telling me that there was a nice influx of passage waders at Farmoor reservoir. Cursing myself for having left my phone off and hoping that I'd not missed them I russled up a quick breakfast and got L (our two year old son) ready to take him up to look at the boats (which is what Farmoor is know for). We arrived in time to meet a couple of local birders leaving the causeway who assured me that the birds were still there. A short walk along the causeway soon revealed a mixed flock of 15 turnstones, 9 sanderling and a couple of dunlin, resting on the windward side of the causeway (why didn't they take shelter on the leeward side I wondered). I was able to take some reasonable photos of them which fortunately came out ok. I did also see a common sandpiper flying around and later found out that apparently there were 5 about as well as some ringed plover which I'd not seen.

A turnstone on the causeway, unfortunately facing the wrong way

some huddling sanderling

The mixed flock of birds

It just shows how quiet things are at present in that these waders were quite exciting to see! Still the lists are ticking along at a reasonable pace. In fact my county list for the whole of last year was only 166 and I've nearly reached that already. My fellow county year lister is some 7 birds ahead of me which is a great effort. Unfortunately there are not many easy ticks left. I have a list of birds that I might reasonably expect to see within the county and there are 16 possible ones left out of the summer and passage migrants. Some of these are tricky to find such as redstart and tree pipit where you just have to get lucky. In addition there are two winter birds that I missed: merlin and woodcock which would make 18 possibles. This gives me a target end of year tally of 175 added to which will be any unusual birds that decide to pop into the county. I can see now just how hard it would be to get to 200 birds. The previous unofficial record is 193 which apparently included "heard only". I have a heard only tawny owl which I could add to the list at the end of the year if I don't manage actually to see one.

Just reading back that last paragraph I can see that this county listing can get quite obsessive! I'm really enjoying catching up with all the county birds and I've added at least 15 birds to my county life list already but I don't think that I'll persue it quite so actively next year - it's all a bit too stressful!

Oxon County Year List 2009
154 reed warbler 01/05/2009 Otmoor
155 marsh harrier 06/05/2009 Otmoor
156 turnstone 07/05/2009 Farmoor Reservoir
157 sanderling 07/05/2009 Farmoor Reservoir

National Year List 2009
189 reed warbler 01/05/2009 Otmoor
190 marsh harrier 06/05/2009 Otmoor