Friday, 30 October 2009

A Lakeland Interlude

This half term we decided that rather than going on a full-blown holiday we would spend a few days up in the Lake District visiting my wife's sister and her family. It was meant to be a chance for the family to explore the area instead of being dragged to the osprey viewpoint every time we are in the area so I didn't even bring my scope with me though of course bins are always de rigeur. The only birding of interest was when one day we went for a visit to St. Bees beach and a walk along the cliffs to a cove to the north of there. I was thinking that it would be an opportunity to put my improving gull skills into practice but it turned out that we saw only a few herring gulls. However there were a few rock pipits and a grey wagtail on the beach area. Up on the cliffs there was a raven calling and flying back and forth. Good numbers of skylarks were flying around in the fields next to the cliff path and a ring-tail hen harrier hunting over the moorland was the highlight. Down on the shingle beach there were more herring gulls loafing around, another pair of rock pipits, quite a few oystercatchers and a single curlew. A peregrine falcon flew over as well, always an impressive sight. On the way back close views of a stonechat were seen. All in all some nice birds to be seen en passant.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Learning the Way of the Gull Master

Having been introduced to the delights or otherwise of birding at Didcot landfill/Appleford GP I've made two further trips there this week, mainly in order to continue in my quest to master the art of identifying Caspian gulls. As I have admitted previously in this blog I have found the whole herring/yellow-legged/caspian gull issue a bit or a challenge and I am determined to get the hang of it. To that end I have been diligently studying away, looking at photos and reading and re-reading whatever I can find on the internet in order to get it into my head and at last I seem to be making some progress. What has helped is the fact that at Appleford GP (which is the pool behind the level-crossing near the Didcot landfill) one can actually see the gulls at close quarters which is far easier than trying to make out distant blobs in your scope at the Farmoor roost. In the end of course there is no substitute for just looking at loads of gulls and I am pleased to say that after the two trips this week I definitely feel that I am getting there.

Mid week I went up one lunch-time for an extended lunch break and had a look around. Whilst there I thought that I found something which looked promising for one of the two first winter Caspian's that are currently around but it flew off before I was able to get a photo or a definite ID. I also realised that there were still some key identification issues which I wasn't sure on so I went back to my studies.

This Friday, fortified with what I hoped were the key points I went back again for an afternoon session. With the atlantis not having been seen for a couple of days now, visiting birders were getting thin on the ground so it was just myself and a couple of other birds present at the pit. Ian Lewington turned up at the far end and I gave him a quick call to say hello and to ask whether he'd come across any Caspians so far today but he'd just arrived. The chap next to me, who was a local birder whom I recognised from the day the white-winged black tern first turned up at Farmoor, having overheard my conversation pointed out what he thought was a Caspian gull on the far bank. I looked where he was indicating and found a classic adult yellow-legged gull, one could even clearly see it's bright yellow legs. This, and my recent experience of other birders mistaking a yellow-legged gull for a Caspian made me realise that there is a lot of confusion out there about this gull complex. I politely pointed out that it was a yellow-legged gull and just at that moment in front of it I spotted a white-headed gull which looked promising. I went through my mental check list for a first winter Caspian:
  • Tertials dark with thick pale tips. A notched pattern on the tertials means herring gull.
  • Greater coverts dark with pale tips to form a sort of wing bar pattern. At least there was no chequered pattern there which would be a herring gull deal breaker
  • Scapulars mid tone grey with small anchors in
  • Head clean white with long parallel-sided bill (though the bill wasn't as huge as on some cachinnans) and with a grey "shawl" around it's neck
  • A "kind" or elegantly aloof facial expression
More importantly it just looked right: somehow all the pouring over photos for hours was paying off and I was starting to acquire some sort of sense of the cachinnans jizz. I called up Ian opposite who had in the mean time found the same bird and he confirmed the ID. I spent the next couple of hours photographing the bird and various other gulls though the usual issues with photographing gulls came to the fore: autofocus on white birds is difficult and in any bright light the white bleaches out the photo if you're not careful (in future I must remember to reduce the exposure in such circumstances). I am finding that the easiest way to get some sort of shot is to video with scope and camera zoomed right in: the autofocus on the video means that some of the frames will be in reasonable enough focus for a videograb to be taken.

The 1st winter Caspian Gull. The pure white head is the most striking aspect but it needs the various other points to clinch the ID. The bright sunshine has rather bleached parts of this still shot.

A close-up still shot though unfortunately once again somewhat bleached out.
A videograb in overcast conditions shows the features better: note how elegant it looks compared to the other rather "brutish" gulls around it.
A first winter common gull on the shore

A first winter greater-black backed gull. Their bills are huge and really stand out from the crowd.

All in all a very enjoyable week getting to grips with gulls. I still have a long way to go: the adult and older immature birds are harder as there are less check points to go on so it comes down more to mantle tone and jizz unless one can get a clear view of the underwing but I fell that I'm definitely making good progress. It's also another tick for the county and national year lists.

Oxon County Year List 2009
183: Caspian Gull 23/10 Appleford GP

Nationsl Year List 2009
226: Caspian Gull 23/10 Appleford GP

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Otmoor Beardy and Staines Moor revisited

On Saturday morning I was just contemplating the day ahead when my mobile went. It was Peter Barker on Otmoor saying that he'd just seen a female bearded tit in the reedbed. I thanked him for the update but said that it was probably going to be tricky to get down there, weekends being more devoted to family activities. However, when a few minutes later he rang back to say that nine further bearded tits had just flown in I decided that L needed to get out for some fresh air. I informed my VLW that I was going to take L out for a walk and that I would stop in on the super market do the shopping on the way back. With this double offer of an L-free morning and the shopping to be done she was most pleased with this arrangement! I got everything ready, including some snacks to keep L occupied (a vital part of ensuring a happy birding experience with L) and we set off for Otmoor.

I chose to come in via Noke as they were mending Otmoor Lane though I later realised that the works didn't actually start until Monday so I could have parked at Beckley as usual, not that there is much in it distance-wise. Once at the first screen by the reed bed I got in touch with Peter who said that they were walking along towards the second screen but that they'd not actually heard the birds for some time. I elected to stay at the first screen and did some tape luring from my mobile. Initially I was pretty sure that I heard some "ping" responses but after a while they stopped so I stopped playing the recording. There was not much else around to be seen: the kingfisher flew in and spent a few minutes on his favourite perch before darting off; two green sandpipers and a dunlin were flying around at the back of the channels and there were the usual ducks dotted around the place. When Peter returned we elected to walk along the bank to the south-east corner of the reed bed where the birds were first seen. Normally one can't go along this route but as work is presently being done on the bridleway this way and the diagonal path across Greenaways were open to the public. We walked most of the way towards the diagonal path, straining our ears for "pings" to no avail. As we returned however we heard the distinct call and a female bearded tit flew out out of the reeds and ducked back in again. It flew around and called for several more minutes before it went quiet again. Very pleased to have connected with this lovely little bird I decided that I needed to head off in order to get the shopping done. On the way back a rather dark stonechat was flitting around in the hedgerow and a buzzard was soaring overhead.

Readers of this blog will know that on Tuesday I'd gone to pick up my mother-in-law (and nipped over to see the Brown Shrike at Staines Moor) and she'd been staying with us all week. This afternoon she was due to go home and I nobly offered to drive her back. Whilst there I thought that it would be rude not to pop in to see the Brown Shrike again whilst I was in the neighbourhood. There were not anything like the numbers of visitors this time as previously though there were noticably more family visitors with reluctant wives, children and girlfriends being dragged along to stand around in the cold whilst their men-folk watched the bird. I did some more photography and this time there were no problems with heat haze due to the rather overcast and gloomy conditions which forced me to go up to ISO 800 in order to get any sort of shutter speed at all. I managed one decent shot and a bit of video footage which would have been great had it not been for a branch which partially obscured the bird. Still it was very nice to see this rarity once more.

The brown shrike once more.

Some good quality video footage somewhat spoiled by the branch in the way of the bird.

Another county year list and indeed county life tick from the bearded tit. I also realised that when compiling my list of sub-species last blog entry, I'd made no mention of the recent American White-fronted geese that were at Blenheim a few weeks ago. They were of course another Phil Barnett find and apparently had first been seen as juveniles on Otmoor a few years ago but no one knows where they've been since or what their provenance is. They didn't stay around for long at Blenheim though they may be back. As I've now got white-front goose for the county list from the Greenland birds I don't need to worry about the provenance of these American birds though apparently it is almost unheard of for them to be kept in captivity so they could be genuine vagrants who were blown over here as juveniles and have been stuck ever since, perhaps even migrating up and down on this side of the Atlantic instead (which has been known to happen in such circumstances).

The extended white forehead is one of the key points that marks these birds out as American white-fronts though there is some debate as to which particular sub-species they are.

Oxon County Year List 2009
182 Bearded Tit 17/10/09 Otmoor (County Lifer)

Friday, 16 October 2009

Wild Gull Chase

With the Azorean Yellow-legged gull continuing to be seen at Didcot most days I have had a couple of further attempts to see it. The nature of the location means that there are a large number of places the gull could be at any one time so finding it is tricky at best. For example, it could be on the tip rummaging through the rubbish, in which case one can't see it; it could be washing or resting on the level crossing pool (a good place to see it at close quarters); it could be loafing on any of the fields to the north of the B4016 (where distant views can be had); or it could be on any one of the private pits to the north nearer to Sutton Courtenay. In addition it is probably roosting at Farmoor each evening though it has only been seen there once so it may usually come in rather late. With so many choices and with all the gulls being rather mobile its pot luck as to whether one can see it on any given visit. I heard recently that a top Oxon birder had to make four visits spending a long time each day in order finally to catch up with this rarity. I'd made my first attempt on Sunday where the lack of the Azorean and the persistent drizzle had been more than made up for by the presence of a Baltic gull for just half an hour. This bird hasn't been seen since so I was very lucky to see it.

Most days the Azorean has been reported, mostly early to mid afternoon so on Wednesday I thought that I would have another go at it. I arrived at around 3pm, coming along the B4016 so that I could look out for gull flocks in the fields. There was a rather small flock of about 50 birds in the field closest to the level crossing so I stopped and had a thorough scan. There was one bird which looked interesting but the bill was wrong (the Azorean has very distinctive head streaking and also a rather striking bill with a yellow tip, then a black smudge and a rather discoloured base). I thought that I would try the level crossing pit next and said hello to another birder who was arriving just as I left. Some thirty minutes later as I was on the pit a text came through from Bird Guides saying that the Azorean was on the field that I'd just left. I can only assume that the newly arrived birder hadn't been as careful in checking out the looky-likey gull that was in the field. Meanwhile at the pit I'd been told that a competent birder had identified a 4th winter caspian gull that had been there for some time. Some of the other birders there put me on to what they thought was the bird and I dutifully took some video footage which included a perfect wing flap so I got footage of the underwing. This would enable me to confirm the caspian identity when I got home. I must admit that whilst the bird did look rather striking compared to the other non lesser-black backed gulls it didn't scream caspian to me though I freely admit that the whole herring/yellow-legged/caspain issue still leaves me somewhat floundering. I am pretty confident picking out adult yellow-leggeds by their clean heads and dark mantles once all the other gulls have streaked heads and when there are lots of others to compare the colour against and I think that I can now pick out a first winter caspian but the other ages still cause a lot of puzzlement. I think that I just need to see a lot more of them so that I can get a handle on the jizz. Anyway, once I got home I sent the shot to Ian Lewington who immediately e-mailed back saying that it was a classic yellow-legged gull pattern! So much for the authority of the other birds but at least it means that they struggle with picking out Caspians as much as I do. I am determined to get to grips with these identification issues and intend to make more visits to Didcot in order further to hone my gull skills. Anyway, despite staying until nearly dark there was no sign of the Azorean gull and it was another miss for me.

A perfect underwing shot revealing a yellow-legged gull rather than a caspian!

For yellow-legged gull identification (taken from "Scottish Birds Records Committee criteria for identification of Yellowlegged Gull Larus michahellis"):

What should be noted involves the extent of black in the primaries with, for Yellow-legged Gull, much black from P10-6 (where P10 is the outer primary feather) and, crucially, a prominent thick sub-terminal black band in P5. The P10-5 primary feathers should show small apical white spots, with P10 having a subterminal white mirror, which is sometimes present in P9, although very much smaller. This wing pattern excludes the argentatus subspecies of Herring Gull and Herring/Lesser Black-backed hybrids, which show either much reduced black in the outer primaries because of larger white apical spots and mirrors, grey/white tongues, and/or no black or a weak band in P5, mostly restricted to the outer web.

All of this can be perfectly seen on the underwing shot above.

The next day I was intending to take a break from gull hunting and dutifully do a full day's work. However at around 4pm a message came on the pager saying that the Azorean was back on the level crossing pit. As I'd reached a reasonable stopping point with my work anyway I told my VLW that I was nipping out and promised to be back by 6pm for dinner. Some thirty minutes later I pulled up at the pit only to be told that the bird and also a first winter caspian had both left about ten minutes ago (it's that ten minute dip for me again!). I was remarkably philosophical about it and decided to head over to the fields to see if I could find it. Fortunately the gulls were loafing in the nearest field to the level crossing so I pulled in at a lay by and had a thorough scan but there was no sign of it. I therefore decided to return to the pit and was just getting out of the car to press the level crossing barrier button when a birder who was there scanning the same flock that I'd just been looking at piped up that the Azorean was there! I parked and set up as quickly as possible and indeed there it was. Puzzled that I'd missed it I was relived to be told that it had just at that minute flown in. I spent some time watching it and doing some digiscoped videoing though the light was poor and the bird was a long way away. However the key identification points could be made out even at that distance: the strongly head streaking was confined and well demarkated to make a sort of hood á lá black-headed gull though very dark grey in colour; there was no streaking on the breast at all and the streaking colour is far darker than on any of the other gulls; the mantle colour is a shade lighter than the graellsii lesser-black backed but darker than a michahellis yellow legged; the bill has a striking yellow tip, then a black smudge and a rather non-descript base; the bird is structurely rather large compared to the other lesser-black backed gulls.

A couple of rubbish videograb record shots. You can see the lighter mantle tone, the striking head streaking which is well demarkated, the large size and the interesting bill pattern.

The bird ended up staying until 5:45pm apparently though I had to leave at half past in order to get back in time for dinner as promised.

I was most pleased finally to have caught up with this rare gull. Like the other two rare sub-species this year (American Black Tern and Baltic Gull) there is the possibility of a split in the future and it's a genuine mega for the country with only one other record (Martin Elliott's bird at Sennen in Cornwall) in Britain though there have been a few in Ireland.

No official BOU ticks for the year lists but there are now three rare sub-species which ought to be acknowledged:

Sub-species List
American Black Tern (Chlidonias niger surinamensis )
Baltic Gull (larus fuscus fuscus)
Azorean Yellow-legged Gull (larus michahellis atlantis)

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Staines Moor Brown Shrike

Last week I may have had some bad luck on the bird front, missing the buff-breasted sandpiper, glossy ibis and caspian gull all by relatively small amounts of time. Well this week I had some good luck in the form of a rather strange series of events. My VLW had been thinking of inviting her mother over to stay for a few days and as she lives in Stanwell (next to Staines) my VLW had asked whether there were any birds in the vicinity that I might want to see en route to picking her up. Accordingly I had been thinking of stopping off at the London WWT centre in Barnes for the long-staying spotted crake but that bird upped and left a few days ago which left me casting around for something to go and see. Two days ago a red-backed shrike was reported at Staines Moor, which is literally five minutes away from my mother-in-law's house so that would be an ideal target. I therefore had my fingers crossed that it would stay around two more days until the pick-up. Late the next day to my surprise the shrike was "upgraded" to a brown shrike so what had been a nice little bird to see had suddenly become a mega rarity. Of course this made it all much more exciting but on the other hand I had been looking forward to a quiet yomp across the moor in search of the shrike. There was no chance of any sort of quiet birding experience with such a rarity and I knew that if it stayed until the next day it would be a massive twitch.

The bird did indeed stay and after having dropped my VLW and L off at her mother's, I set off the short distance to Staines Moor. To get to the actual location of the bird involved a walk of about 20 minutes along the side of the King George VI reservoir to get to a concrete foot bridge where at least a hundred birders were paying homage to the rare shrike. The bird showed very well sitting on top of hawthorn bushes at frequent intervals as shrikes do. It was a cracking bird, with faint vermiculation down its flanks, a lovely uniform warm brown on the top of the head and all down its back and tail, a black mask pattern and pale grey underparts. Whilst the light was perfect and it was a hot sunny day, unfortunately there was lots of heat haze which made photography rather problematic. I managed a number of shots but none of them was brilliant. Still one can't complain too much when looking at something as rare as this. Apparently the brown shrike breeds across central and eastern Asia and is migratory, wintering south to India, southeast Asia and Indonesia so it was a long way from home.

You can get a sense of the heat haze from this photo

Probably the best shot quality-wise but for some reason the bird looks very grey instead of the warm brown colour that it actually was.

A videograb shot in which you can see the faint vermiculation on the flank and breast

Another videograb shot

Given the heat haze, some reasonable quality video footage

A shot of just some of the massed hoards all come to see the brown shrike

It was also amazing to note how many people I knew there. Now I expect that seasoned twitchers are used to seeing the same old faces on twitches but for me this was certainly by far the largest twitch that I'd been on so it was a new experience for me. I was pleased to meet three people from Oxon whom I knew as well as a Beds. birder whom I'd met on my unsuccessful Cambridgeshire foray. I also saw the anonymous wryneck "flusher" and had a brief chat with Lee Evans. Since the bird was showing so well it was a friendly and good natured experience all round, apart from one poor chap who had walked in from a different part of the moor and found himself on the wrong side of the river with a hoard of angry twitchers yelling out that he was going to flush the bird. He beat a hasty retreat.

Apparently a great grey shrike was also around that morning though it had not been seen for at least an hour when I arrived. Other birds of note were a pair of sparrowhawks, a kestrel, a pair of stonechats and a couple of ring-necked parakeets seen on the drive into Stanwell.

Another year and indeed life tick thanks to this genuine mega rarity.

National Year List 2009
225: Brown Shrike 13/10/09 Staines Moor (Lifer)

Monday, 12 October 2009

A Wild Gull Chase and another Wild Goose

A couple of local excursions to report on: on Friday morning I got a call to say that a Brent goose was on Farmoor Reservoir. Fortunately for me I wasn't doing anything special and could leave my work for a while so I was able to get down there almost immediately. The bird was right in the middle of Farmoor II to start with and was rather wary. While we were watching it it flew up and did a number of circuits before eventually settling on Farmoor I. Apparently it stayed until mid afternoon before departing. Brent geese are by no means common county birds so I was most pleased to pick this up for my county year and indeed county life list.

As the bird was so far away I had to be content with a digiscoped videograb record shot which didn't come out too badly.

Whilst I'd been off chasing wrynecks and Brent geese during the week of course there was much hoohaa in the county about the Azorean Gull down at Didcot. Finally on Sunday I was free to go and see if I could find it but by all accounts it was not an easy bird to locate as it (and all the other gulls there) were highly mobile and there were lots of places that it could be, many of which were inaccessible. Still I thought I'd have a go and at least I could see if I could catch up with the two first winter Caspian gulls which were around as well. Also, I'd only birded the area once before and had found it rather difficult so I wanted to get better acquainted with the location and it's various access and viewing points.

I arrived to find a persistent drizzle which didn't abate the whole time I was there. I initially checked out the fields to the north of the minor B road where a number of gulls were loafing but there was no sign of it. Indeed no sightings had come across the pagers at all that day so it wasn't looking that promising. I next made my way over to the Appleford GP, the small pool just beyond the level crossing there. Here were half a dozen or so hardy birders patiently waiting to see if the vagrant gull would turn up. Ian Lewington, gull guru and finder of the bird turned up and pointed out that there was a Baltic Gull in amongst the fifty odd gulls that were at present gracing the pool. Once he had told us what to look for: a very small, very black-and-white lesser black back gull with a clean head and very long primaries, it was fairly straight-forward to pick out and it did indeed really stand out from the others.

A digiscoped videograb record shot of the Baltic Gull

And again, this time with a standard lesser black-backed for comparison. Note the very black wing colour, the small size, the clean and delicate head and the extraordinary long primary projection.

Unfortunately the Azorean Gull never turned up though Ian did locate it later in the afternoon in a private pit further north. I also managed to miss one of the first winter Caspian Gulls by about ten minutes (a consistent theme with birds for me in the last week!) but I was very pleased the the Baltic gull by way of compenstation for a rather damp and frustrating afternoon. Baltic Gulls (larus fuscus fuscus) are currently a sub-species of the lesser black-backed gull though apparently they are ripe for splitting and have already been split in the Netherlands. This means that it's not a tick at present but an armchair one may be due in the future. In terms of identification, although in general there is apparently some overlap with l. f. intermedius it was a very striking bird and Ian was very confident about it.

Just one more tick for the county list in the form of the Brent goose which was a most welcome addition. Having already achieved my year target, I feel that all birds now are bonuses.

Oxon County List 2009
181 Brent Goose 09/10/09 Farmoor Reservoir (County Lifer)

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Wild Goose Chases, Wild Geese & a Wryneck

This week has been quite a mixed bag as far as birding is concerned. It had been two weeks since my last day excursion to Malvern for the snow bunting so I felt that I was due another outing. I had noticed that up in Cambridgeshire there had been a buff-breasted sandpiper and a glossy ibis at Diddington Pit as well as a curlew sandpiper at nearby Grafham and since these were all birds that I still needed I felt that three target birds should be enough for at least one of them still to be around. Accordingly I did my homework on routes and site access etc the night before and the next day, after dropping my daughters off at school (it was raining and they were feeling feeble) I headed north to Cambridgeshire.

I'd not been birding to this area previously so it was interesting to venture into new territory and it took about one and three quarter hours from Oxford before I was turning up at the small village of Diddington. A short walk across a field found the partially flooded former gravel pit: It wasn't exactly scenic though there seemed to be plenty of birds about. I made my way over to another couple of birders in order to get the low down and was informed that the sandpiper had been seen on and off during the morning but that about ten minutes earlier thirteen golden plover had flown in and fourteen birds had flown out so it was possible that the sandpiper had gone with them. Myself and another birder elected to walk round to the other side of the pit to see if we could see it but to no avail so it appeared that it had indeed flown. There was also no sign of the ibis though from previous day's reports it appeared that it came and went and was quite mobile. A good look around the pit revealed plenty of teal, mallards and coots, a few pintail and pochards, several little egrets, a couple of greenshank, one ringed plover, one kingfisher and one snipe. With no joy from my target birds, after a while I decided to head over to have a brief look at nearby Grafham; perhaps when I returned later one or both birds would have returned.

I decided that I would have a look around the lagoons on the south side of Grafham and along the reservoir shoreline there where the curlew sandpiper had been seen the previous day. The lagoons were an interesting place, though hard to view as they were surrounded by fencing and small bushes. I did manage to find four rather flighty green sandpipers there which were nice to see. There was nothing along the reservoir shoreline to speak of so I soon made my way back to Diddington. There, some new birders had arrived though unfortunately no new birds. I enjoyed a chat with one of them who knew me from my Port Meadow Birding blog which he said that he enjoyed. Disappointed with not having connected with any of my target birds I headed back towards Oxford. I later learnt that both the sandpiper and the ibis turned up within a couple of hours of my departure which rather added insult to injury.

On the way back I got a call from a fellow county year lister saying that Phil Barnett, the most conscientious of patch birders and a prolific rarity finder, had come up trumps again in the form of five Greenland white-fronted geese at Blenheim, his new chosen patch. As it wouldn't be too far from where I was heading on my way home I decided to make a brief detour there though I couldn't be too long as I'd received some shopping instructions from my VLW which needed to be acted on in reasonably good time. I quickly parked near the free gate at the bottom of the hill in Woodstock and hurried around to the large feral goose flock which apparently had attracted in these wild geese. A couple of quick photos and I had to head off again, very much a "tick and run". I met Lee Evans just arriving as I was leaving and apparently he later gave his seal of approval to the authenticity of the birds which were firsts for Oxfordshire (the Greenland sub species that is). Although one can't count the Greenland sub species as a separate tick, I needed white-fronted goose for the county year list (and indeed county life list) so I was pleased to have salvaged something from the day. The birds were gone the next day, adding further weight to their wild credentials.

One of the five Greenland white-fronted geese.

The next day I was quietly working away when just before 4 pm word came out of a wryneck near Newport Pagnall in Bucks. Now wryneck is a bird that I've always wanted to see but they usually appear on the coast and inland birds are comparatively few and far between so I knew that I couldn't pass up the opportunity when one came along. A bit of negotiation with my VLW who pointed out that I would miss her lovely roast dinner that she was cooking and I headed off. It turned out to be a bit of a nightmare journey, absolutely teaming with rain and with lots of heavy rush hour traffic so what should have taken just over an hour took and hour and a half instead. The directions were also rather vague: I had to look for some allotments near a bend on the road from Newport Pagnall to the village of Lathbury. I found the bend and saw an allotment-like area over a wall and went to have a look. However as I wandered around I gradually realised that this was actually someone's garden! I wandered down the road a fair way, looking for the spot but with no luck. As I returned I found a fellow birder also looking for the location. We found a local and asked after the allotments and were directed to the other side of the road where one had to go on a footpath through a field for about 100 yards so not visible from the road at all. We finally arrived to find that the bird hadn't been seen since early afternoon a good two and a half hours ago. Although it wasn't raining it was now getting rather dark but I decided to wander around a bit in a half-hearted attempt to see if I could see anything. Needless to say I couldn't and after a while it was getting too dark to see and I headed home. It was a long and rather depressing journey back, having dipped once more on what had turned out to be a wasted few hours. That is of course how birding goes sometimes but as I am relatively new to twitching I was perhaps not as philosophical about it as more seasoned birders probably are.

The next day was gloriously sunny and calm, in sharp contrast to the previous day's dismal weather. On the information services I was soon greeted with news that the bird had been showing well first thing in the morning till at least 8am. This left me with a dilemma: did I risk another long journey there with a strong possibility of dipping once again or did I stay at home in which case I might have to endure the torment of reading about it showing well throughout the day. In the end I decided to do a few hours work and then to set off at around 11:30am so that I was in effect taking an extended lunch break (well that's how I justified it to myself). My long suffering VLW just shook her head pityingly and went into town. The journey there was much more like it with glorious sunshine and clear roads so that it took a little over an hour, as it should do. I also knew exactly where to go and I pulled into a hardstanding where everyone else had parked. As I was getting ready a returning birder gave me an update: apparently it had been seen briefly about an hour and a half ago but not since. I was by now starting to get that sinking feeling that it might be yet another wild goose chase but I got my gear together and set off nonetheless. There was a crowd of perhaps a dozen birders there starting intently at the scrub area and chatting away about recent twitches. Although I'd read about them I'd not been on any previous twitches where one had to stare at a piece of terrain for hours waiting for a bird to show so it was a new experience for me. I had a brief walk around the back to see if I could see anything but in the end I resigned myself to joining in with the staring at the bramble thicket.

After about an hour someone cracked and decided to "go in". They wandered around a bit and we all watched intently, disapproving of course of his actions but at the same time hoping that they would work. No luck and we went back to staring. A short time later someone else cracked and went in. I was just positioning myself to get a better view when a cry when up as apparently something had flown out from the grass into the nearby trees. I'd missed seeing the actual bird and there was much debate as to whether it might have been the wryneck or not. We all rushed over to get a better view of where the bird seemed to have flown to. The "flusher" wandered around very close to the tree to the annoyance of several seasoned birders: apparently if you flush a wryneck you need to retreat and it will usually come right back down again to where it was. Anyway, we all stared at the bushes for a while when the cry went up that the bird was showing. It took an agonising thirty seconds and some frantic questioning before I finally managed to ascertain where everyone was watching and managed to see the bird for myself: it was hopping around in bush and then moved to an adjacent leafless bush where it showed extremely well for about thirty seconds before it flew off back into the scrub. Everyone there, not least myself, was extremely delighted to have got their sighting and most of us soon made our way back home. I later learnt that it showed again briefly almost immediately after that but not thereafter that day.

I didn't manage a photo of the wryneck but fortunately someone else did. This is when the bird was in the bare shrub and showing at its best © Andy Whitney (I recommend Andy's excellent blog)

So it had been a week with a lot of driving around after birds and with multiple dipping but an eventual success with the wryneck whose life tick I feel was well and truly earned. There was of course the bonus Blenheim geese county life tick which gets my county year list up to 180 which I feel is a creditable tally for the year although not putting the county record of 193 under too much threat.

National Year List 2009
224 wryneck 08/10/09 Lathbury, Bucks (Lifer)

Oxon Year List 2009
180 white-fronted goose 06/10/09 Blenheim (County Lifer)

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Farmoor Rock Pipit

On Saturday I got a text saying that a pair of rock pipits were about on Farmoor causeway. Of course once again I was busy all day but I was more confident that they might still be around the next day and indeed on Sunday I got another text saying that there were five there first thing that morning. Finally at around 11am I was free to get down there, taking L along with me. L actually quite likes going there as he's really into boats at the moment. The prospect of some good boating action together with some biscuits and crisps to keep him going means that he's usually a fairly willing companion.

The weather was quite nice after the previous day's strong winds but, as usual for a Sunday, it was busy along the causeway as well as on Farmoor II with all the boats and wind surfers. About half way along the causeway I saw a flock of five pipits buzzing around ahead of me and sure enough three of them were rock pipits, the other two being meadows. They were a bit flighty and there was no chance of a photo at that point. Still there was an obliging dunlin along the shore line which allowed me to take some close photos. In fact he was a little too close: digiscoping seems to struggle if the bird is too near but one or two of the shots came out reasonably well. There was also a female/juvenile wheatear along the causeway and I managed to get one clear shot of it with a nice background which came out quite well.

The obliging dunlin

The dunlin, even closer up though its not a classic portrait

The one good shot of the wheatear with a nice uniform background.

On the way back the rock pipits had returned and were better behaved feeding by the wooden sailing observation huts. I managed at least a reasonably focussed record shot of one of them. Having the meadow pipits there as well gave a good comparison between the two though I didn't manage a side-by-side photo.

A record shot of one of the three rock pipits.

Oxon County List 2009
I was pleased to have caught up with this bird which I had missed in the spring passage. Judging from past entries on the Farmoor blog, the first week in October seems to be the usual time of the year to catch returning rock pipits and a few have been seen inland elsewhere also in the last few days. Just one more to get my initial target of 180 birds for the county year list with any more than that being bonuses. One of my fellow county year listers is now on 188 and is in sight of the county year list record of 193. I really hope that he gets it: he deserves it for the amount of time and effort that he's put in to it.

179 Rock Pipit 4/10/2009 Farmoor Reservoir