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)

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