Monday, 30 November 2009

Lower Brook Farm Spotted Sandpiper

Now that my patch, Port Meadow, is back in action I've been going there regularly but I'd not been on an "out of town" birding trip for some time and was starting to get twitchy for something a little different. I'd noticed that several spotted sandpiper had appeared recently: one at Abberton Reservoir in Essex seemed a little too far away, as did one in Topsham in Devon but one at Lower Brook Farm in Hampshire looked to be a more reasonable distance so I'd been keeping an eye on sightings and it seemed to be pretty constantly seen every day. Accordingly today I decided to take the morning off and to nip down there for a bijou twitchette.

The day that I'd chosen was starting out cold and rainy though the forecast was for it to brighten up later so I wasn't too downhearted as I headed south on the A34 in the driving rain. The journey there was uneventful and took a shade over an hour. The only interesting part was when I arrived at the car park which had a very low height restriction bar, so low in fact that it was a squeeze to get the new car in under it with the roof rack bars still on. I managed it but there was a bit of a scraping as I went in! On the ten minute walk up a rather muddy track along the river there were loads of winter thrushes and tits feeding in the hedgerow and a female sparrow hawk glided silently away ahead of me. I soon found myself standing as per the Bird Guides instructions on the Lower Brook footbridge over the river Test looking at the lawn and drive of what was a large and very nicely situated house. This house was on a small island around which the river parted. There was an immaculate close-cropped lawn and a small summer house and few trees. It didn't seem to be your typical sandpiper terrain and indeed there was no immediate sign of the bird but I'd read that it was only showing intermittently so I waited and scanned. Whilst waiting for the bird to show I noted three little grebes and several swans on the river, a greater spotted woodpecker and a mistle thrush calling in the trees behind me, a grey wagtail and kingfisher flying about and a kestrel caught something in the field at the end of the bridge.

A short time later a fellow birder turned up asking if I'd seen the bird. I was just telling him that it had not yet shown when I spotted it walking next to the tarmac drive near the house. There wasn't time to get the scope onto it before a car came out of the house and the bird moved off. The car stopped by us and the lady inside asked whether the bird was still there. When we informed her of its continuing presence she very kindly said that we could go and stand at the end of her drive to get a better view. We thanked her for this and took up her offer. From here we were able to see the bird which was now working its away along the fringe of the side channel. It seemed to be finding loads of food and would periodically pull up a huge earth worm which it consumed with gusto. Shortly thereafter it flew to a more distant channel before disappearing for a while. At this point we were joined by a third birder who was a little disappointed that we couldn't put him straight on to the bird but after a little wait it appeared again and we all got good views.

The bird had originally been reported as a "possible" and from close inspection one could see that the reason for this was its leg colour which wasn't the typically diagnostic yellow of a spotted sandpiper but was more greeny in colour. However the various other identification points were all there: short tail projection; plain back and tertials with just fringing on the coverts; a rather pinkish bill with a black tip and not much of a white wing bar in flight (there's supposed to be less white on the inner portion of the wing though I didn't get a good enough flight view to ascertain where the white was). As usual I tried to do some digiscoping but the light was so bad that it was not possible to get any sort of shutter speed even at ISO 800 so I once more resorted to videograbbing. The results are acceptable record shots given the conditions.

From these videograbs you can see the pinkish bill with the black tip, the short tail projection and just make out that the back and tertials are relatively plain.

The journey back was a little more eventful: I had to remove the roof bars before I could get out of the car park and I took a wrong turning and found myself heading south instead of north along the A34 though it wasn't long before the next junction where I could turn round and head in the right direction.

A very nice little twitch to see a subtle bird that required some thought and observation to distinguish from its commoner cousin. A lifer for me as well as another national year tick.

National Year List 2009
231: spotted sandpiper 30/11/09 Lower Brook, Hants. (LIFER)

Thursday, 26 November 2009

A Port Meadow Caspian Gull

There's not been much to report recently on the bird front. However my local patch, Port Meadow, has finally sprung back into life with the arrival of some decent flood waters from all the rain we've been having and indeed the river now looks close to bursting its banks and turning it back into a lake. This is vital in order to ensure that there is a decent amount of flood water to last ideally at least until spring. I've been making twice daily trips down there as I am determined to find something good before the year end. Since I've been birding there from the Autumn of 2007 onwards there has always been at least one scarcity for each half of the year. The list is as follows 2007 H2: grey phalarope & pectoral sandpiper; 2008 H1: Temmink's stint; 2008 H2 American Golden Plover; 2009 H1 spoonbill. However with there having been such a dry autumn there have been no floods to speak of until recently and so time has been slipping away for me to find a decent bird to keep this list going. There were also a few "good county birds" this spring in the form of an avocet, a bar-tailed godwit and a little tern but these aren't proper scarcities in their own right just in the county so I can't even borrow a spare from the first half to count for the second half. This is all nonsense I know but I have a real soft spot for the Meadow and would very much like it to have the birding recognition that it deserves. This is one of the reasons why I run my Port Meadow Birding blog and I am always touched and surprised by the number of people who come up to me saying how much they like it.

Now that there is a decent amount of flood water there is much more chance of a decent gull roost so I've been going out to check in the afternoons and a couple of days ago I made the pleasant discovery of a lovely Caspian Gull in amongst the roost. Followers of this blog will know that I have in the past been struggling with the whole herring/yellow-legged/Caspian gull complex and have been working diligently at improving my identification skills. In my recent blog entry on finding a 1st winter Caspian at Didcot I mentioned that I now felt more confident on this age group but had yet to master the adult birds. All my staring at Caspian Gull photos must have paid off somehow because as soon as I saw it I thought Caspian Gull: the jizz and shape just looked right. I went through my adult Caspian check list:

  • Long parallel-sided bill of pale or washed out yellow colour (often almost limey in colour)
  • Clean white head with gently sloping forehead, dark "bullet-hole" eyes
  • The Cachinanns facial expression: to me it's a kind, sad and aloof expression. It definitely doesn't look fierce though can sometimes look "imperial"
  • A mantle colour that's a shade darker that argenteus, about the same as argentatus but lighter that michahellis.
  • Legs that are a paler pink that your typical herring gull
  • Moderate amounts of white in the primary for the closed wing (not small amounts as for michahellis)
The gull in question: note the "kind, sadly aloof" expression.
A wider shot allowing comparison of the bill and mantle colour. Note the long parallel-sided and rather washed out bill colour. You can't see it very well but the legs were definitely pink.

All this checked out perfectly. There was just one final test which is the underwing and really requires a videograb so I set about videoing. Ideally one wants a full underwing flap but unfortunately I wasn't able to get this. What one is looking for is a reasonable white tip to P10 with a white underwing primary covert covering the inner web of P10 so that one is left with a small black area and perhaps a black finger extending down the outer web. This didn't seem to match so well and left me slightly wondering though everything else looked so good and I am starting to realised that with gulls there is often so much variation that one can't always get everything to match up. Nevertheless to be on the safe side I sent my shots to Ian Lewington the county recorder and top gull expert to see what he said. He agreed that it did appear to have all the right characteristics of a Caspian Gull and that the amount of black on the underside of P10 was still within the acceptable range for a Caspian though only just.

The best underwing shot that I was able to manage. There is rather a lot of black on this but apparently it's within the acceptable range for a Cachinnans.

An example of what a standard P10 underwing look like. Note the white underwing primary covert on the inner web with the thin finger of black extending down the outer web.

So using the Bird Guides classificaiton of five degrees of rarity: common, local, scarce, rare and mega, it's not a scarcity, being merely a local bird but it's the best bird that I've had on the Meadow so far this autumn and it's enabled me to further my knowledge of the "Way of the Gull Master". I'll carry on going to the roost down on the Meadow to see what else of interest I can find.

No new ticks to report for either the county or national year list.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

No longer Witless in Oxon!

I've been trying for a willow tit (or "wit" to use a self-crafted shortening which I am trying to get into general usage) for a while now in the county and with the recent confirmed discovery of a pair frequenting Grimsbury Reservoir near Banbury I'd already made a couple of fruitless trips up there. As I mentioned previously on the second occasion they were seen on both days of weekend subsequent to my visit so a revenge outing was surely due. Conveniently I needed to head up that way anyway on an errand so I reasoned that it would be rude not to make another visit to the reservoir and I hoped that it would be third time lucky.

As I walked along the river towards the wood at the north end where the birds were generally seen it was soon clear that it was rather quiet bird-wise. There was not much moving or calling and I pondered what were the influencing factors that made some days and times alive with bird activity and others completely dead. Clearly time of day was an important factor and first thing in the morning is generally good but it was only about 10:30 and there was hardly a bird to be heard. The wits had generally been seen where the river meets the wood or alternatively along the canal bordering the north of the wood so I carefully scoured both these areas but there was hardly a bird to be seen with a brief glimpse of a kingfisher being the highlight. I was determined to spend a little time on trying for this bird so decided to do circuits back and forth between the two locations. After my third iteration I was starting to get tired and a little hungry so I decided to take a brief rest. I sat down along the bank of the canal and "zoned out" for a little, just listening for bird song. A few redwings went over as well as a buzzard being mobbed by a pair of crows. There was precious little to hear when suddenly I was aware of some "lit" (sorry, I'm going to use my new tit abbreviations throughout this blog entry!) calls behind me and I managed to spy a party of six or so in the wood just behind me. They must have been the advanced guard of a mixed tit flock because on the other side of the canal I was suddenly aware of various calling and feeding birds: a few bits and gits were calling and there was something working its way through a tree directly opposite me. I managed to get a decent view and it was either a mit or a wit. I generally feel that for a safe ID one has to hear the call but this bird certainly seemed to be a wit as it was rather a drab brown underneath and with rather dusky flanks compared to a mit which usually looks rather smart. I held my breath waiting for it to call but unfortunately it didn't. I'd held off using any sort of tape luring so far as last time I felt that it had probably been counter-productive but at this junction I played a brief burst of a wit call and immediately got back an answer coming from a little way into the wood on the opposite side of the canal. Could I confirm that the bird that I'd seen in the tree was the same calling bird? No and the call seemed too far off to be the bird that I'd just seen so I still didn't have a confirmed sighting. I waited and the calling wit or wits seemed to be getting nearer and suddenly a black-capped tit appeared on the far side of the canal and flew across into a tree not 10 yards in front of me and gave the wit call - Bingo! I got a good view of it and even managed to note the dull black cap, the pale secondary wing panel and the rather dusky brown flanks and drab appearance. The bird soon flew on into the wood behind me. I decided to head off in that direction as that was the way back to the car anyway and I soon caught up with the feeding flock again within the woods. At one point the wit came within about 5 yards of me as it worked its way through the trees with the other tits and one goldcrest that was part of the flock. They then moved on deeper into the woods where I couldn't follow so I headed back to the car and home.

I was most pleased finally to get my county willow tit though I did have a possible sighting in my garden some time last year: I was in the garden when I heard and saw a black-capped tit which was working its way down the gardens, stopping and calling every few gardens. I couldn't get a very good view of it before it moved on though I did note it had a rather bull-necked appearance. As I'd heard the call I immediately rushed inside to match what I'd heard to my MP3 library of tit calls but foolishly I didn't write down or record what I'd heard before I started playing all the call files and I soon realised that after having played back so many calls I'd completely forgotten what I'd originally heard! However I can remember that it was a loud and strident call but not a "pitchoo" so there was every possibility of it having been a wit, but I'll never know for certain. I now make a point when I have heard something that I want to match against a recording, of either recording my impression of it on my mobile or at least translating it into words to avoid this happening again. I also subsequently made sure that I knew mit and wit calls off by heart from then onwards!

One more tick for both the county and national year lists. I appear to have reached my 230 end of year national target already which is amazing. I'm not going to bother setting a new target but it will be interesting to see what the final total is. For the county list there are a few winter birds which I could still get: merlin (still!), woodcock, Bewick's swan, glaucous gull and given the quality of birding over the last few days who knows what else might turn up.

Oxon 2009 County Year List
189: Willow Tit 12/11/09 Grimsbury Reservoir (county lifer)
Official 188 + 4 sub-species

National 2009 Year List
230: Willow Tit 12/11/09 Grimsbury Reservoir

I didn't get any photos today but there are a few videos left over from the recent fab Farmoor day to post:

Record vid of the red-breasted merganser

The Slavonian Grebe

Snow Bunting

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Farmoor Tick Bonanza!

Occasionally really great birding days come along and today turned out to be one of them. It started yesterday afternoon when two snow buntings were reported on the information services as being on Farmoor causeway mid afternoon. I wasn't able to go as I had to ferry various of my offspring about the place but I called my fellow county year lister and he rushed off to secure the tick. The birds stayed until dusk so I decided that I would go first thing the next day and hoped that they would still be there.

Next morning the weather was pretty terrible with low solid grey cloud and persistent drizzle so there was every possibility that the birds weren't going anywhere. I arrived at Farmoor just before 8am and was the first person on the causeway. There was quite a bit of bird movement with a flock of eight oystercatchers flying through shortly followed by another bird which lingered a while and a flock of three small and two larger waders (probably dunlin and something else) also flew over. I didn't have to go too far along the causeway before I found the buntings, happily hopping around feeding on whatever they could find. I was soon joined by a few other birders and we all attempted to photograph the birds in various ways. I soon discovered that digiscoping has its downside in very poor light as you don't have the advantage of a flash at all so I was restricted to videoing and then taking a videograb later. I am more and more discovering how useful a technique this is especially when conditions are difficult such as they were today. Pleased to have connected with the birds I walked the length of the causeway to check that there wasn't anything else around then went and had a brief look for the black redstarts (which I couldn't see though they were later reported again) before heading for home, most pleased with the morning's birding.

Not much more than a record shot of the male snow bunting given the terrible light conditions.

Mid morning I was back at work when I got a call to say that someone had found a pair of Slavonian Grebes on the reservoir. My wife gave me a pitying look as I explained that I had to head back out to Farmoor but some twenty minutes later I was walking down the causeway, noting the buntings which were still there as I walked the full length of the causeway to meet up with my fellow year lister and a companion along the west shore of Farmoor II. The Slavonian grebes were hunting along this shore and after a while moved reasonably close so I once again deployed my video technique and got a reasonably good grab from it this time.

Given the light conditions I'm very pleased with how this digiscoped videograb came out of one of the Slavonian Grebes

Whilst we were there one of the others found a distant red-breasted merganser right out in the middle of Farmoor II. There was no possibility of getting anything even remotely decent in the way of a photo but once more a videograb produced at least a record shot of the bird which appeared to be a male. I didn't stay too long and stopped off for a spot of shopping by way of appeasement for my VLW.

Again just "record shot" quality for the red-breasted merganser which was out in the middle of Farmoor II

I have a self-imposed rule of not coming out to Farmoor more than twice in one day, this being instigated earlier on in the year when I had to go for black tern in the morning and then for a knot in the afternoon only to be told in the evening that there was a grey plover there which I didn't have the energy to go for. So after having made two trips there I was somewhat dreading getting a call to say that anything else had arrived but fortunately I was spared that agony. Nevertheless it had been an amazing day with three county year and indeed for me county life ticks coming within the space of a few hours. Coming on the back of the birds at the weekend as well it makes for a real purple patch for Oxon birding at present. I was also told that my total of nine oystercatchers was a record count for Farmoor and two of the above photos (not the snow bunting) were also used for the Farmoor blog which I was rather chuffed about.

The ticks are moving on nicely. I should also mention that my fellow year lister, who deserves to be named for his achievement (Jason Coppock) has broken the county year list record already with a stunning 195 birds and with six weeks still to go there might even be the possibility of his reaching 200. I should also mention that apparently one shouldn't be counting ruddy shelduck for the year list so my official figure should be one less than the 188 that I am showing below. I am keeping my lists as they are though as I happen to like ruddy shelduck! There are of course still the four sub-species which could retrospectively be promoted via "armchair ticks".

Oxon County Year List 2009
186: Snow Bunting 10/11/09 Farmoor Reservoir (County Lifer)
187: Slavonian Grebe 10/11/09 Farmoor Reservoir (County Lifer)
188: RB Merganser 10/11/09 Farmoor Reservoir (County Lifer)
Official Count 187 + 4 sub-species

National Year List 2009
229: Slavonian Grebe 10/11/09 Farmoor Reservoir

Monday, 9 November 2009

Forest Hill Rose-coloured Starling & Farmoor Black Redstart

It's been an exciting few days in the county with the discovery of a county first in the form of a juvenile rose-coloured starling at Forest Hill and also finally a twitchable black redstart after several vague or inaccessible sightings over the last few weeks.

To start with on Friday I went back to Grimsbury Reservoir in Banbury to have another try for the willow tits that had recently been seen there. I'd deliberately chosen a very still day with little wind and also went reasonably early in the morning and there were plenty of birds around along the river there with flocks of mixed tits, goldfinches and siskins to be seen. There was also a female stonechat on the reservoir perimeter fence. However despite my best efforts there was neither sight nor sound of any willow tits either along the river or along the canal. I did meet the original finder of the birds whose local patch it was and he confirmed that the locations where I'd been looking were correct. To rather add insult to injury, on the following two days a pair of willow tits were seen along the river by visiting birders so it looks like I was rather unlucky. I'll just have to make yet another trip there in order to get my tick.

The next day (Saturday) the news broke of a juvenile rose-coloured starling which had apparently been present for three weeks at least in Forest Hill. One of the local residents had sent a photo to the county recorder who had come down and confirmed the bird's ID and put the word out. Shortly after the text hit the phones all the keenest Oxon birders were wandering around the small village of Forest Hill scrutinising every single startling in an attempt to locate the bird. Fortunately someone soon found it and we all converged on one particular road though it had disappeared by the time we all got there. Fortunately it appeared again soon after and I got a rather brief view before I had to leave to fulfill my weekend family shopping obligations. A life and a county tick for me so I was most pleased though rather wishing I could have gotten a photo and a more prolonged view of it. I came back later the same afternoon but by then it was getting rather dark and cold and there were no starlings to be seen at all so I didn't stay long.

That evening news came out on the information services that a pair of black redstarts had been at the Farmoor reservoir water treatment works that afternoon. There have been a lot of black redstart sightings throughout the country recently but Oxon up till now had only had a couple this autumn: one only reported after the bird had gone and one where it was on private MOD land so it was great to have a twitchable sighting at last. I couldn't get down there first thing as I had to drop my two daughters off somewhere first so it wasn't until about 10:30 a.m. that L and I turned up. It was dark, windy and drizzly and at first I couldn't find any sign of the birds but eventually I found one and then two of them. They were flitting around the treatment buildings, occasionally hopping up on to the roofs where they could be seen. I even managed some video footage and some digiscoped record shots.

The two juvenile black redstarts on one of the treatment work buildings

one of the black redstarts
A videograb of one of the birds

Some video footage of one of the birds

The next day (Monday) I was dutifully back at work but as lunch-time approached I felt that I needed a little excursion to break up the day. Since I work from home, if I don't get out I can spend the whole day indoors so I thought that I would head back to Forest Hill to see if I could get better views of the starling. The weather was very dull grey and cold so the light was abysmal for photos but I thought that I would give it a go nonetheless. When I arrived I was the only one there but a birder who had travelled up from London soon joined me and after a while the bird returned to the roof tops along the road enabling us to get good views of it sitting on a chimney pot. As predicted, it wasn't great conditions for photographs so the results are little more than record shots but a valuable personal momento nonetheless.

The juvenile rose-coloured starling on a chimney pot

and again

A close up of the second shot which shows it's thick yellow bill and pale brown plumage.

So another couple of year list ticks for both the county and national lists. Both birds are also county lifers for me and the starling is a personal lifer as well so a great couple of days birding.

Oxon Year List 2009
184: rose-coloured starling 07/11/2009 Forest Hill (County Lifer)
185: black redstart 08/11/2009 Farmoor Reservoir (County Lifer)

National Year List 2009
227: rose-coloured starling 07/11/2009 Forest Hill (Lifer)
228: black redstart 08/11/2009 Farmoor Reservoir