Thursday, 24 September 2009

Malvern Snow Bunting

I'd been getting rather "twitchy" in recent days, wanting to get out and see something. I could tell this as I was constantly scouring Bird Guides and looking enviously at all the interesting birds that were turning up in places like Cornwall. I therefore decided that I was overdue for one of my birding outings and this week I should head off somewhere for at least part of the day. The next question was where to go so researching on Bird Guides for birds that were staying put there seemed to be two candidates: a spotted crake at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes and a snow bunting on the Worcestershire Beacon in the Malvern Hills. The crake might involve several hours of sitting in a hide waiting for it to show whereas the bunting was supposedly on the very top of the Beacon by the toposcope there. Such pin-point accuracy in a bird location was appealing and the idea of driving for an hour and a half, climbing a hill for half an hour all to see if a bird was on top was a quirky idea that I found rather attractive. Coupled with that was the fact that I could pop into Slimbridge whilst I was in the area to see what was around.

So it was that yesterday I took L into nursery and then headed west along the A40. We've recently bought a new car which is most comfortable and with a more powerful engine so it's no longer a question of trying to coax it to go at higher speeds with it shaking away as it used to. Consequently it was a most enjoyable drive down there. As I was approaching the Malvern Hills which are most striking, standing as they do as an eight mile range of peaks in an otherwise completely flat landscape, I could see the Worcestershire Beacon, which is the highest peak at the northern end of the range. It was a bit odd to wonder whether a small sparrow-sized bird might be perched up there right at the top or whether it had moved on. The navigation became a bit fiddly towards the end but I had done my homework thoroughly before hand and even had a print-out road map to hand so I managed to find the location without any problem. However when I got to the car park it turned out that there was a £2 fee and I had absolutely no change. Not wanting to waste time heading off in search of a shop to get change I opted instead to risk it: in the worst case I would have to pay the £20 fine if I were caught.

I found the path and headed up along the ridge towards the the peak. It was interesting to see the bird life there: meadow pipits everywhere and hirundines hawking for insects in all directions. There were also quite a few corvids around and I looked out carefully for ravens but to my eye (and I admit to struggling a bit with this unless they are calling) they all looked like carrion crows. A falcon called loudly and I soon spotted a juvenile kestrel in a bush. A few skylarks were flying overhead, calling as they passed. This spot must be great for watching migrants as its the highest spot for miles around.

Suddenly I was at the top and could see the trig point and the toposcope so the bird was supposed to be here. I started looking around and then I spotted a couple of people with binoculars looking at something. This looked encouraging so I went over and there it was, the snow bunting, hopping around a couple of metres away. It was a most confiding bird and was happily searching around for seeds in amongst the rocks. It appeared to have no problems finding food and was munching away contentedly. I immediately set about taking some digiscoped images of the bird as well as some video footage. Some more birders arrived yet the bird remained completely unphased. I was told that snow buntings are becoming an annual event on the Beacon. It's just a shame that there are no comparable hills in Oxfordshire as it would be great to enjoy this little bird closer to home. Having got my fill of the bunting I headed back down the hill, mindful of the lack of parking permit. I arrived back down to find the car mercifully ticket-free and just as I was setting off again the ticket warden turned up so I had been very lucky on that front.

The most confiding snow bunting on the top of Worcestershire Beacon

A view of Malvern from the hill top

Next, on to Slimbridge where I was hoping that I might find a curlew sandpiper or at least a little stint both of which I needed for my year list. A quick look at the sightings log reveals no sandpipers but a little stint was present so I headed over to the Zeiss hide and had a good scan around at all the waders whilst eating my packed lunch. There were plenty of teal, 3 spotted redshank, a couple of dozen redshank, a male and two female-type ruff, one greenshank, twenty odd dunlin, a similar number of black-tailed godwit and a single little stint in amongst the dunlin. I next headed over to Holden Tower and the hides where there was very little to be seen apart from one green sandpiper on the Tack Piece. The Summer Walkway was open and as I'd never been on this before I decided to walk down to the estuary to see what was about. The Mid Point "hide" turned out to be an old minibus so I just stood in front of it instead. There were just a few gulls, some curlew and a couple of little egrets out on the mud but it had been interesting to get out there for a look anyway. After that I decided that I'd had enough for the day and headed for home, the return journey being uneventful.

A couple of ticks for the year list and snow bunting was in fact a life tick for me. That takes me up to 222 for the year list which equals last year's headline total though I did retrospectively give myself one other tick which was a puffin at Crail. I'd not been sure about it at the time but having seen more puffin since then I am now positive about the ID. This means that last year's total was 223 so I should be able to beat that comfortably this year and have a mental target of 230 for this year.

National Year List 2009
221: snow bunting 23/09/09 Worcestershire Beacon (Lifer)
222: little stint 23/09/09 Slimbridge

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