Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Gloucester Goshawk

A good couple of weeks birding to report on since my last blog entry. I only had one major trip outside the confines of the county but it's an interesting time of year with passage birds starting to move through and every day there is the possibility of something new.

It started well when a couple of Saturday's ago I nipped down to Port Meadow as usual. There was a very stiff north-westerly wind which made viewing difficult but as I scanned I saw a familiar black and white patterned bird flying around over the floods: an avocet! I willed it to land and fortunately it did so I immediately whipped out my digiscoping gear and shot away like crazy. It was a long way away into the teeth of the strong wind but somehow I at least managed some passable record shots. I put the word out and soon a few other birders had assembled and managed to see the bird. Unfortunately it didn't hang around long and was gone by lunch-time. Still an excellent bird to find on one's local patch.

A couple of record shots of the avocet on the Meadow

I seem to be falling into a pattern of late of going out to Port Meadow first thing to check what's about with my scope and then at lunch-time I go for a run around Meadow and Burgess Field (the neighbouring nature reserve). About two weeks ago I did this and didn't find much on the early morning excursion but lunch-time proved more productive. Firstly, in Burgess Field I decided to have one more try for jack snipe despite the fact that the pools there are practically dried up. In fact there was only one pool left but as I started to tramp around it I did indeed manage to flush a snipe. What's more it flushed from less than a metre away, it flew away low and rather weakly on rounded wings before landing some 50m away and I saw that it was rather smallish with a comparatively short bill and a rather greenish back with yellow stripes: finally a jack snipe! I was delighted to have found this so late on in the season and on my local patch too! Flushed (sorry!) with success I carried on with my run, managing to see a singing chiffchaff nearby before heading out of Burgess Field and back on to the Meadow for the long slog around to the west side of the floods. It was worth it though as I managed to find a lovely little ringed plover (my first of the year) lurking on the floods as well as a white wagtail flitting around. A very pleasant lunch-time run!

The next morning I arranged to meet up with JC my fellow county year lister at Shotover Avenue in order to try for lesser spotted woodpecker. The Avenue was a know hot-spot for this difficult county bird so we thought that we'd give it a try. I arrived slightly early at 6:30 am so thought I'd have a bit of a wander before JC arrived. I'd not got more than 50 yards down the path when I heard one calling and drumming. However I couldn't seem to see it anywhere until it flew at tree-top height right over my head and off somewhere. At this point JC arrived so I quickly directed him to the spot where I'd last seen it but there was no sight nor sound of it. We then spent the next couple of hours wandering slowly down and back up the Avenue without any sign of it until back where I'd originally seen it JC spotted it in the tree tops. It proceeded to drum briefly before once more flying off at tree-top height. A great county bird to see and in fact a bird I haven't seen at all since my childhood birding days.

That Thursday I decided to take a trip over to the west of the country to catch up with the goshawks in Gloucester. I decided also to nip in to Slimbridge to see if I could catch up with their American wigeon and also the glaucous gull that was sometimes there in the morning. There was also a long-eared owl roosting at Frampton which I hoped to be able to see. The weather was gloriously sunny and with not a breath of wind as I set off. However as I headed west I eventually hit a thick wall of fog which seemed to be covered the whole of the west country. Visibility was so bad that when I got to Frampton, even though I found the trees in which the LEO's were supposed to be, there was no way that I could tell if they were there or not! Disappointed with this I next headed over to Slimbridge where things were just as bad. The American wigeon could not be picked out from the few wigeon that I could see. I did manage to spy a sand martin and a black-tailed godwit in the gloom but little else. Hoping that this wasn't going to be a totally wasted trip I decided to head on to Gloucestershire, to New Fancy View, the known goshawk hot-spot, hoping that it would be high enough to be out of the fog or at least that it would have cleared by that time. Fortunately as I approached the Forest of Dean, climbing up the hills there I was soon out of the fog and the Forest itself was almost completely fog free. At the watch point itself there were a few birders around including one local who seemed to know the ropes. As I was standing next to him I could spot when he had found something and could then pick it up myself. I quickly had a couple of distant views of goshawks as well as some much closer ones of buzzards. A flock of siskins also flew over calling and there were coal tits in the nearby trees to be watched as well. After a while the local left and things got rather quiet so I decided to head back to the car park to see what was on the feeders. I tried digiscoping some of the siskins on the feeders and then noticed some birds feeding under the trees a bit further away where some food had been put out. As I watched I was pleased to find a brambling in amongst the chaffinches there. A short while later it was joined by a hawfinch so I had a great time digiscoping them though the light was rather poor under the trees despite the bright sunshine elsewhere and so the quality of the photos wasn't that great. A most enjoyable end to the day and I headed back home, well pleased with my trip despite the foggy start to the day.

Some brambling and hawfinch photos.

Apart from that I've been birding away in county. Late in the morning the day after my Gloucester trip I got a text from "Mr. Farmoor" saying that there was a passage of little gulls going through. I had to pick L, my two year old son, up from nursery shortly so I packed us a picnic, picked L up and we headed straight over to Farmoor. It was a gloriously sunny day and we had a very pleasant walk around to the south side of the reservoir where the sun would be behind us and there was a bench to sit on. NJH, the Farmoor expert came over and helped me pick out the little gulls which were flying around in the centre of the reservoir. Even from this distance you could distinctly see their very dark underwings and their more rounded wing tips and their tiny size. A most delightful bird to watch. As I headed back towards the car park I spotted a raven flying high overhead. It's huge size and large wedge-shaped tail giving away it's ID even at that height.

The following week was rather quiet until the weekend when I went to the Meadow earlier than usual at 7:30am on the Saturday morning. I was fortunate enough to come across a drake ruddy shelduck on the floods though it seemed rather nervous and kept moving around, soon flying off to the grass 100 yards or so to the north of the floods. I sent a text off to JC about it but by the time he was able to get there at 9am it had gone.

A surprise bonus on the Meadow in the form of a male ruddy shelduck

The next day I was down on the Meadow and I met up with a fellow birder (BRCa). He mentioned in passing that he'd seen a couple of wheatear down at Day's Lock the previous day and as I still needed them for the year list I thought that I would take L over there that afternoon. I'd only once been there before for the cattle egret last year so it would also be a good chance to explore this area further. As I walked along the track from the lock I soon spotted a promising looking blob on a fence post and the scope soon confirmed it as a beautiful male wheatear. There was a lot of heat haze about so digiscoping efforts were difficult but I tool a record shot at least. Elsewhere there was what looked like the remains of what would have been some rather nice flood waters in the field which were just drying up. Beyond that were two pools: a smaller one with some gulls and geese and a couple of white wagtails on and further in the distance a larger one on which I could see some tufted ducks and coots. L was getting grumpy by this time so we headed back to look at the weir and a boat going through the lock which L enjoyed much more than sitting around whilst I stared at distant blobs through a scope.

My first wheatear of the year. I couldn't crop in any closer as the heat haze meant that there was very poor resolution in the photo.

So some good progress with the lists and a life tick in the form of the goshawk. With the passage really starting to kick off now it's an exciting time of year to be birding.

National Year List 2009
139 jack snipe 16/03/2009 Burgess Field NR
140 little ringed plover 16/03/2009 Port Meadow
141 lesser spotted woodpecker 17/03/2009 Shotover: the avenue
142 sand martin 18/03/2009 Farmoor Reservoir
143 goshawk (Lifer) 19/03/2009 New Fancy View, Glouc.
144 little gull 20/03/2009 Farmoor Reservoir
145 swallow 27/03/2009 Port Meadow
146 ruddy shelduck 28/03/2009 Port Meadow
147 wheatear 29/03/2009 Days Lock

Oxon Year List 2009
117 avocet (Ox Lifer) 14/03/2009 Port Meadow
118 chiffchaff 15/03/2009 Stanton Harcourt
119 jack snipe (Ox Lifer) 16/03/2009 Burgess Field NR
120 little ringed plover 16/03/2009 Port Meadow
121 lesser spotted woodpecker (Ox Lifer) 17/03/2009 Shotover: the avenue
122 sand martin 18/03/2009 Farmoor Reservoir
123 little gull 20/03/2009 Farmoor Reservoir
124 swallow 27/03/2009 Port Meadow
125 ruddy shelduck 28/03/2009 Port Meadow
126 wheatear 29/03/2009 Days Lock

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Padworth Mealy Redpoll

Last Saturday I was contemplating where to take L, our two year old son, on our now regular Saturday morning outings when I read on Bird Guides that there was a Mealy Redpoll knocking around in Berkshire. Some research on the internet showed that it was located along the bank of the river Kennet at the Padworth GP and would not be too far a walk from where one could park. Whilst this was a longer trip than the usual local ones I take L on, I reckoned that there was enough time to get down there, have a little look around and get back in time for lunch. However the journey down did take longer than I had estimated, being about an hour from Oxford so I was a little behind schedule. I eventually found somewhere to park down a very bumpy road and with L installed in his all-terrain buggy we set off towards the river where we soon came across several birders with long camera lenses trained in the alder trees so I knew that I was in the right place. In amongst them was Jerry O'Brian a well known Berkshire birder and photographer whom I'd met a couple of times previously last year. Just as I arrived the birds had moved to a new set of trees a few yards down the bank and so we moved off to take a look. It was not easy viewing as the birds were constantly on the move and partially obscured by twigs and branches but I caught a view of a bird with much more marked wing bars and a "frosted" appearance before they once more took flight heading much further off down the river. After standing around chatting for a bit I walked with L along the river a bit to see if I could relocate them but they were not to be seen nearby. All things considered I was rather lucky to have connected with them as had I arrived a few minutes later they would have gone. So not as good a view as I would ideally have liked but after all a tick's a tick!

With early March traditionally quite a dead time of year for birding, what with most of the winter visitors having left and the spring birds not yet arriving, I thought that it would be a good opportunity to catch up on some of the birds I was still missing on my Oxon county year list, namely merlin, jack snipe, water rail, mediterranean gull and woodcock. It was getting rather late for some of them but nevertheless I would see what I could do.

With this in mind on Tuesday morning I got up at 6am in order to head down to the Ewelme cress beds near Benson in south Oxfordshire in order to see if I could find a water rail. I had been in touch via e-mail with a Benson birder who told me where to look for the rails. The weather was rather grey and drizzly as I arrived and made my way over to the willow screen hide and settled down for a wait. It was rather uncomfortable as one had to crouch in order to remain hidden behind the screen but after only 10 minutes the rail came out from its hiding place under some overhanging branches long enough for me to get a good look. I decided that I would see if I could get a digiscoped photo if it came out again and very carefully tried to move apart some of the willow stems so that I could have a large enough gap to photograph through. The light was pretty poor and the restricted gap meant that there was even less light coming through so even at ISO 1600 the shutter speed was only 1/30th. Fortunately water rails don't move too fast and the rail was rather showy, coming out several times even right out into the open so I was able to get quite a few good shots.

The Ewelme cress bed water rail

The following day I was down on my local patch at Port Meadow. This time of year I do my best to get down there once a day so as to maximise my chances of seeing all the passage waders that are coming through. The Meadow tends to be a stopping off point but often the birds don't stay for very long as it is all rather exposed so it pays to make regular visits. The highlight of the visit was my first ringed plover of the year which was quite a long way away in misty conditions and poor light but I had a go at digiscoping it at x60 mag and was pleasantly surprised at how comparatively well the photo came out.

Very distant ringed plover digisoped in the mist - the first of the year for Port Meadow and also for me

Later that same afternoon I decided to make another trip over to Farmoor Reservoir to see if I could find a mediterranean gull in the roost. I had e-mailed the local patch birder there about coming over and despite not having had a reply I decided to have a go anyway. Just as I was walking along the causeway I got a text from him saying that there was a med. gull in the roost. Apparently he'd not yet checked his e-mail that day but had been up there anyway. We spent a very pleasant hour or so in wonderful "flat" light sifting through the gulls. He managed to find two birds: a smart adult in summer plumage and a second winter which was still getting it's hood. I had a go at digiscoping the birds but at that range it was very difficult so in the end I resorted to videoing and subsequently video-grabbing which came out surprisingly well given the distance that they were away.

Video grab of adult mediterranean gull in the Farmoor roost

Video footage of the adult med. gull. It's best viewed in High Quality mode. To do this click here and the click on "HQ" at the bottom right of the video screen.

The day after I decided to have a go down on Otmoor to try for woodcock and jack snipe. The former were supposed to frequent a certain field there, roosting under the bushes and I was going to tramp around the marshy Pill Ground for the jack snipe. I combined this visit with my daily run so went in my running gear rather than wellies etc. I knew that it was going to be rather marshy but I was not quite prepared for just how bad it would be. The woodcock hunting was fine: I ran all over the field looking under the bushes and managed to find a dozen snipe, four pheasants and a brace of red-legged partridges but alas no woodcock. I then headed over to the Pill Ground, stopping off at the car for a snack as I was starting to feel a little light-headed. However I soon discovered that I'd foolishly left my snack behind so I would just have to soldier on. I'd only once before been to the Pill Ground and never to the pool on the west side so I was totally unprepared for the extensive reed bed that one had to wade through to get there. I did manage to flush a water rail whilst slogging through it all though. The pool itself had no distinct edges so it was a case of splashing around the edge in the hope of flushing a jack snipe. I managed to work my way around the pool, occasionally accidentally stepping into much deeper pools that went up to mid way up my thigh but there wasn't a bird of any kind to be seen though I did catch a glimpse of a fox. Soggy and by now somewhat disheartened, I made my way over to the east pool and started slogging around it but I soon decided that I was too tired, hungry and wet to carry on so made my way back to the car and back home for a shower and some lunch.

By now I have lost count of the number of marshes and bogs that I have slogged around looking for jack snipe: they have definitely become a bit of a county bogey bird for me. Nevertheless, it had been a productive few days birding: another life tick in the form of the mealy redpoll and three more county year ticks with a couple of my troublesome year birds now ticked off. I am more or less resigned to not getting merlin, jack snipe or woodcock though I did look up the lastest departure times for them in the local literature and they can still apparently be around until the start of April so it may be worth another try or two.

2009 National List

135 mealy redpoll (Lifer) 07/03/2009 Padworth GP, Berks
136 water rail 10/03/2009 Ewelme Cress Beds, Oxon
137 ringed plover 11/03/2009 Port Meadow
138 mediterranean gull 11/03/2009 Farmoor Reservoir

2009 County List
114 water rail 10/03/2009 Ewelme Cress Beds, Oxon
115 ringed plover 11/03/2009 Port Meadow
116 mediterranean gull 11/03/2009 Farmoor Reservoir

Thursday, 5 March 2009

An Eyebrook Green-winged Teal

After my successful Devon trip last time, there are a few local trips to report this time plus one longer excursion. I've been concentrating on my county year list and consequently have made lots of little trips out to try and find various birds. I generally try to get out for an hour or two at lunch-time each day even if it's just down to the local patch.

On Friday 20th a report came late afternoon over the pagers of a great white egret at Otmoor. It wasn't convenient to go then so I decided to head down there the next morning with L, my two-year old son in tow to see if I could find it. It had been reported as still present first thing that morning and en route I even had a phone call from a fellow birder who was at Otmoor saying that the bird was still present and also that the Otmoor bittern was out in the open and showing well. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived the egret had flown off though I did manage to see the bittern. There were also three little egrets which had initially been accompanying the great white egret and who remained after it had gone. I was disappointed to have missed the GWE (by about 30 minutes!) though it wouldn't have been a county lifer as I saw the one at Farmoor last year. Nevertheless I was pleased to have connected with the bittern which was a county first for me. In fact my fellow county lister JC who has many years experience of birding in Oxon only saw his first county bittern when he saw this one earlier on in the year.

A record shot of the hidden bittern. It was actually a really showy bird and there are some great photos of it out in the open on the Otmoor Birding site.

A record shot of the little egrets, though small consolation for dipping on the great white.

One of the over-wintering county birds that I had been struggling with was brambling: it has been a very poor year for brambling with it hard to find any in the county. When therefore I saw that some had been seen at South Stoke at the Withymead Nature Reserve I was keen to see if I could find them. Withymead is actually just the extended garden and grounds of a private house which has been turned into a mini nature reserve. Viewing is by appointment only but I rang up to speak to the owner who said that the bramblings had gone but he would give me a call if they returned. True to his word about a week later I got a call from him saying that a single female had been on the feeders that morning. I hastily arranged a family outing around a trip there: my VLW (very lovely wife) wanted to be dropped off at the garden centre en route and I took B (my younger daughter) and L with me to Withymead. They initially stayed in the car whilst I met the proprietor who took me to where the feeders could be viewed. The bird was coming and going periodically and wasn't not currently showing so we had to wait for about a quarter of an hour before it turned up again. After that we were given a tour of the reserve which included an interesting variety of habitat including woodland, river bank and reed beds.

A week later, I was determined to see the green sandpiper which was over-wintering at Cassington gravel pits so I decided to get up early (6:30) on Sunday and nip out there before the rest of the family was up and about, so as not to interfere with family time too much. It was a rather gloomy and overcast start to the day but as I walked around the main lake I heard the piping alarm of the sandpiper and saw it zig-zagging over the lake. Pleased to have connected so quickly I had a look around elsewhere but there was little of note apart from two oystercatchers on one of the side pits, my first of the year for the county. Back home, once the rest of the famiy was up I offered to take L for a little trip to see the trucks and diggers at Dix pit to give my VLW some free time. L likes this as he can sit in the car looking at the passing trucks and playing "beep beep" (pretending to drive the car) whilst I scan the lake. Today there were quite a few birds of interest, some of which had moved over to Dix from Farmoor: a great northern diver was hunting at the back of the pit, the two first winter scaup were near the island, the red-head smew was still about and a male ruddy duck was lurking in amongst some pochards. I was particularly pleased about the ruddy duck as I'd had only a very distant view previously and this county year tick had previously been a tiny bit suspect.

On Tuesday morning I decided to have another go at finding a county merlin so I got up early and arrived at Otmoor shortly after 7am, deciding to come in from the Noke end. It was a rather grey and murky start to the day and I began by scanning the mounds at the back of Ashgrave. Quite quickly I had a distant brown blob which looked the right size, shape and colour for a merlin. Pleased to have connected so quickly I proceeded to walk in towards the first screen. There was actually very little around apart from a couple of calling cetti's warblers, annoyingly hidden deep within the undergrowth. By the first screen I heard the familiar cry of some curlew and saw a flock of about 25 flying in and landing close by the edge of the reed bed.

A record shot of some of the curlew flock

On the way back I had a quick look at the mounds to see if I could see the merlin again. The light by this time was much better and I was surprised to see the brown blob in exactly the same place as before. On closer inspection I realised that my supposed merlin was in fact a strange-shaped lump of earth. Interestingly enough, if I hadn't had another look I would now have merlin ticked on the the county year list so it just shows how precarious long-distance ID's can be.

I had suggested that my VLW might be interested in visiting her sister over in Milton Keynes this week in order to have some time away from L, whom I would nobly take and go off somewhere. Specifically I had in mind a trip up to Eyebrook reservoir in Leicestershire where there had been a green-winged teal staying on and off over the winter. We had arranged to go on Thursday but in the proceeding two days there were no reports of the GWT being seen there so I was starting to think that it might be a wasted journey. However on Thursday morning I had a quick look on Bird Guides and fortunately someone had seen it the previous day but had only posted it late in the evening. Buoyed by this knowledge we set off. I dropped my VLW off at her sisters and we then drove for about an hour to get to the reservoir. The reservoir is rather large but the bird had been frequenting the north end so I made my way along the road keeping a look out for teal. I soon spotted some on my side of the water and decided to stop there to have a close scan. Within a couple of minutes I was fortunate to have found the bird which happened to be directly opposite me on the far bank. I was contemplating some digiscoping but there was a severe heat haze it it would have come out as little more than a blur. I decided to head round to the opposite bank to see if I could get a better view even and soon relocated the bird quite close by. As I was setting up my digiscoping gear I saw a teal fly off low over the water and after that I couldn't find the bird so I guess that it had chosen that moment to move further down the reservoir. Apart from that there were a couple of redshank and the usual mix of ducks that you might expect. I did have a look for the smew which had been seen recently but couldn't find them.

The Eyebrook Green-winged teal. There was too much heat-haze for me to attempt a digiscoped shot so instead here is a photo taken by someone else a few days earlier. © John Turner

The national year list has had very few additions since the last entry, partly because I've been concentrating on the Oxon list and many of the birds I still need for it I've already seen nationally. Still it was great to get another lifer in the form of the green-winged teal which was another one of my target lifers for this year.

National 2009 Year List
132 brambling 22/02/2009 Withymead NR
133 green sandpiper 01/03/2009 Cassington GP
134 green-winged teal (
Lifer) 05/03/2009 Eyebrook Reservoir, Leics.

I've managed to make some progress with the Oxon year list though I am now some 8 birds behind my fellow county lister (he's actually seen 9 birds that I haven't but I was lucky enough to get ring-necked parakeet which he hasn't yet seen). I've realised that I am never going to keep up with him, partly because of his greater birding experience but also because he is able to devote far more time than I am to going out and getting everything. He's basically got everything that one can reasonably expect in Oxon for this time of year whereas I'm still struggling with some staples such as: water rail, cetti's, jack snipe, merlin, woodcock and Med. gull. I am more or less resigned to not seeing the jack snipe and merlin for this seaon though will have one more go next week. After that I'll have to try again in December.

Oxon 2009 Year List

107 treecreeper 18/02/2009 Wytham Wood
108 bittern (
County Lifer) 21/02/2009 Otmoor
109 little egret 21/02/2009 Otmoor
110 brambling 22/02/2009 Withymead NR
111 green sandpiper 01/03/2009 Cassington GP
112 oystercatcher 01/03/2009 Cassington GP
113 curlew 03/03/2009 Otmoor

Unofficial max. possible Oxon total is 132 according to my reckoning.