Monday, 31 August 2009

Farmoor Tern Extravaganza

Around about lunch time on Friday 28th August the word was put out that a juvenile white-winged black tern was on Farmoor. Needing no further prompting I set off there post haste and on arrival I soon met up with dedicated Oxon birder Phil Barnett. At the top of the car park embankment we had a good scan around Farmoor II and having picked out the bird at the far end we decided to walk along the causeway to get a closer view. At this point the heavens opened so we beat a hasty retreat to the hide at the top of the reservoir where we met up with Alan Brampton the finder of the bird as well as another county birder. We had just found it in the company of one adult and two juvenile black terns when they all four flew over to Farmoor I and settled on the barley bales in the middle of the reservoir. We therefore trooped back along the causeway where I was just about to take a digiscoped shot when they all set off again. We watched from the causeway for a while as all four birds hunted in the middle of Farmoor II before noticing that a fifth bird had arrived. I set off to go home at this point pleased with another county year tick.

Early evening, word was put out by Ian Lewington that the fifth tern that had arrived was in fact a great rarity in the form of an American black-tern. Apparently Ian had taken some video of the white-winged black tern and had noticed another tern that was in shot for some of the time which wasn't a usual European black tern. Having done all the checks he was confident in identifying it as an American tern. I spoke to a fellow county lister and we decided that it would be a good idea to nip back to the reservoir to have a look for ourselves. The reason was partly that whilst we'd both seen all five terns and therefore the ABT we hadn't actually picked it out in situ. We both admitted that we weren't going to deny ourselves the tick should we not see it again but that it would feel better if we could actually pick it out. It was virtually dark by the time we arrived and raced around to the Lower Whitely Farm end in order to be as fast as possible. We raced up the embankment and soon were watching all five terns. We were just able to pick out the adult black tern and the WWBT and it was possible to make out that of the three remainging juveniles one was definitely darker along the flanks. As it got darker, three of the terns flew progressively higher and higher until they were lost from view though we weren't able to tell which three they were.

The next day found the WWBT and ABT still present on the reservoir so it had obviously been the three EBT's that had left that evening. Fortunately these two remaining birds seemed quite pally and have stuck around since, being joined fairly quickly by another juvenile European black tern making a wonderful trio of terns and offering great comparisons between them all.

I chose to go back on the very windy and overcast Sunday in order to try and take some digiscoped photos. Conditions were pretty terrible which explains the poor quality of my personal record shots.

The juvenile American Black-tern on the left and the juvenile White-winged Black-tern on the right in this poor quality digiscoped videograb.

Here is the video footage from which the grab was taken, again the quality is very poor.

For the best photographs that you're ever likely to see of these birds it's worth looking at Nic Hallams Farmoor Birding web-site.

Oxon County Year List 2009
The white-winged black tern is a county year (and county life) tick for me though I saw the adult bird at Staines reservoir earlier in the year so it's not a national year tick. The American black tern is currently classified as a sub-species of the black tern: Chlidonias niger surinamensis and so is not technically a tick though it's apparently ripe for a split soon so an armchair tick could well be in the offing. Even so it's the rarest bird that I've ever seen in the UK with only a couple of previous sightings in this country with a couple more in Ireland.

173 White-winged black tern 28/08/2009 Farmoor Reservoir (County Lifer)

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Some county life ticks

I've been dutifully birding away in the county during the wilderness months of June and July. This year it seems to have been particularly tough, partly because the flood waters on my local patch, Port Meadow, have completely dried up. Nevertheless I've managed a few ticks for the county year list recently so I thought that I would do a blog update to cover these.

Waders are my favourite birds which is why I like Port Meadow so much. When I was getting extreme wader withdrawal symptoms I would head over to Radley GP's where good numbers of green sandpipers have been coming through. I love these little birds and can always happily spend time watching them. Unfortunately they were on the far side of the ash pit but I did manage some rather blurry video footage of some of them.

Green Sandpiper at Radley GP. In the audio you can hear my three year old son chatting away to me about some caterpillars.

Despite having already seen a spotted flycatcher this year in the county I was keen to see them again and when I was offered the chance to photograph a pair that were nesting in someone's private garden in Kingston Lisle I jumped at the chance. I only had my digiscoping gear as usual so I had to wait for the right opportunity but I managed quite a decent shot in the end even if I say so myself

Kingston Lisle spotted flycatcher

Common redstart has been a county bird which so far during my two years of active Oxon birding has eluded me so when one turned up at Farmoor I was keen to find it. I went down as soon as I was able a couple of days after it was first found but it was nowhere to be found. I then had to go away on holiday and so assumed that I'd missed the bird but on my return I was pleased to discover that it was still around and frequenting the same hedge. I therefore decide to go on a lunch-time run back to Farmoor to see if I could find it. I met up with a fellow birder who'd seen it some five minutes previously and even pointed out to me its favourite bush but despite watching this location for a good twenty minutes it didn't show. Eventually I had to leave in the company of one of the Farmoor regulars and as we walked back along the path low and behold there was the redstart further along the hedge flashing its red tail away. It was a shame that I didn't have my digiscoping gear with me but it was very nice finally to get this for my county life as well as county year list.

All birders deserve a bit of luck and I freely admit to getting a good portion of this recently when I was out on a family outing one Sunday. We'd gone for tea with some friends in the Wytham village post office and then wandered down to Wytham Mill to mess about down by the river. The kids were wading in the stream and I'd just wandered down to see how they were getting on when on the way back I saw a large long-winged bird coming towards me. Initially I thought that it was a large gull but as it got nearer I could see the tell-tale extended primaries of a raptor. It was quite close by now, perhaps 75 yards flying low over the trees and I could clearly see from its colouring and markings that it was in fact an osprey. These are hard birds to find in the county as they don't seem to hang around at all even at Farmoor and one generally has to be lucky in catching a fly-over. This spring I'd missed one that flew over Port Meadow about one hour after I'd left there but that's the luck of the draw with these things. This all meant that I was most pleased to have seen this bird which was another county life tick for me. This bird seemed to be following the river south and the spring bird had been following the river north so perhaps this is a common tactic for migrating ospreys.

With a crossbill irruption occurring throughout the country I was keen to catch up with these birds within the county. I was told that Bagley Wood was a good spot to try for them and it's not too far to go so I went and applied for a permit (from St. John's College Bursar's secretary). Armed with this I got up early one morning and went and loitered within the wood just near the entrance opposite the sawmill where a fellow county year lister had seen a couple of birds a few days earlier. However I didn't manage to see any though I did see three juvenile hobbies and managed a digiscoped photo of one of them.

Juvenile hobby at Bagley Wood

Another county year lister then managed a flock of at least 30 a few days after that so I decided to try again. He gave me detailed instructions of a hot spot to try so a few days later I again got up early and wandered further into the wood to the favoured location. There was nothing there when I first arrived but it was rather early so I decided to have a bit of a wander around and then to return later. I had several sightings of roe deer and found a juvenile buzzard squawking away demanding to be fed. There were also quite a few marsh tits "pitchooing" away at various places. I retraced my steps and returned to the hot spot to find several finches flying away and making quite a soft "jip" sound, almost chaffinch-like though these birds were too large for chaffinches. I was expecting the familiar very harsh "jip jip" call but nevertheless these were definitely crossbills. One of them conveniently stayed put at the top of a tree and allowed me to get quite close and indulge in a digiscoping session. The bright sunlight and the relative proximity of the bird meant that I was able to get some good shots. You can see that the bird is clearly a juvenile still with some soft downy feathers.

The confiding juvenile crossbill...

...and again even closer up.

So three county year list ticks to add to the list which is a bit of a relief as things had got rather bogged down recently with no ticks for far too long. In fact all three birds are actually county lifers though since I've only been birding actively in the county for two years there are quite a few of the relatively common birds that I still need to get.

2009 County Year List
170 Common Redstart 11/08/2009 Farmoor Reservoir (County Lifer)
171 Osprey 23/08/2009 Wytham Mill
(County Lifer)
172 Crossbill 25/08/2009 Bagley Wood (County Lifer)

Saturday, 15 August 2009

A Week On the Isle of Mull

Our summer family holiday this year was yet another in the long line of holidays going to the far flung corners of this country. This time it was to the Isle of Mull as we have always liked the rugged beauty of the west coast of Scotland. We'd booked a cottage right by the sea at a location called Grasspoint which is a point on the south east corner of the island looking out across the Sound of Mull back towards the mainland.

As usual we broke up the long journey north by stopping off in the Lake District to stay with relatives and we decided this year to go a day early and actually to spend a day in the Lakes. It was rather late in the year to see the ospreys at Bassenthwaite as they'd already flown the nest and could be anywhere on the lake and surrounding area but on a family walk through the pine forests up to the upper viewing point we were lucky to find one of the birds back on the nest, presumably a juvenile waiting to be fed. I managed a distant digiscoped photo.

Osprey at view point at Bassenthwaite Lake, Cumbria

I did manage one other evening walk up to the lower viewpoint where the nest is not actually visible but there is a partial view of the Lake. From here there were lots of stock doves flying over and coal tits, greenfinches and chaffinches visiting the feeders. I also saw a distant peregrine fly over the lake being mobbed by a lapwing. A red squirrel, a speciality of the area, was also seen near the feeders.

The journey up to the Isle of Mull was largely uneventful though on the ferry I did manage to see a few black guillemots which are know to nest at Oban from where the ferry departs. The cottage itself turned out to be functional but rather shabby and a bit damp. However this was more than made up for by its fantastic location overlooking the mouth of Loch Don and out to sea with a small jetty a few yards away. There were large hills in the distance across the Loch and also behind the cottage and several small island out in front of us on the far side of the Loch mouth as well as a distant lighthouse. Within a couple of hours of arriving I'd spotted my first white-tailed sea eagle sitting on a ridge behind us before it flew off out into the Sound of Mull. There were also a pair of knot on one of the islands opposite the house, which apparently are somewhat uncommon passage waders for Mull.

As this was a family rather than a birding holiday I tended to get up before everyone else and just wander around Grasspoint to see what I could find and this worked out rather well. Amongst the resident birds around Grasspoint were three oystercatchers that worked their way along the shore line. A walk along the loch shore would often result in the sightings of common sandpiper and curlew and on one occasion there was a party of 4 ringed plover waiting out the high tide.

Out in the loch itself one could often find a black guillemot or two and on the islands opposite there were shags and cormorants as well as a rather fat seal that spent most of its time asleep. Out in the sound were the usual sea birds including guillemots and razorbills flying in their hurried straight lines low over the water; manx shearwaters skimming gracefully over the waves and kittiwakes with their distinctive "ink-dipped" wing tips.

The surrounding habitat was grass and scrub land and hosted a variety of birds. There were large numbers of meadow pipits around the house and a rock pipit or two would put in an occasional appearance. There was a small grove of trees near the house in which a family of willow warblers and a whitethroat or two seemed to live. Across the grassland hen harriers could often be seen hunting and there was a family of buzzards which we regularly encountered on the drive down to the house. Finches such as linnets, chaffinches, goldfinches and greenfinches would regularly fly overhead or be seen sitting on the wires. One of the highlights for me was a couple of sightings of a twite right by the house. I managed really good close views though unfortunately not for long enough to take a photo. On another occasion there was a whinchat sitting on the fence next to the house.

One of the juvenile willow warblers at Grasspoint

One of the members of the buzzard family on post on road to Grasspoint

A rock pipit right by the house

One-legged oystercatcher at Grasspoint

Oystercatcher at Grasspoint

One of the highlights of Grasspoint was the regular sightings of white-tailed sea eagles. They would often sit on the islands on the opposite side of the Loch. In fact several of the island's many wildlife tours would often come down to Grasspoint in order to give the tour goers sightings of the eagles

A White-tailed Sea Eagle drying its wings on one of the islands

A White-tailed Sea Eagle in its favourite perch

As well as a wide variety of bird life there were plenty of mammals to see in the water. I often saw porpoises in the area and once a dolphin as well as the smaller common seal. I once caught a glimpse of what might have been an otter across the estuary though apparently previous house guests had regular sightings close to the house.

A common seal at Grasspoint

One morning there was a fantastic basking shark swimming really close to the shore just in front of the jetty. I raced around there and managed a digiscoped shot of its huge dorsal fin cutting the water.

Basking Shark at Grasspoint

Apart from the regular birds there were plenty of occasional sightings to keep me interested. Arctic terns nest on the islands to the west of Mull and they could sometimes be seen hunting out in the Sound of Mull from Grasspoint. On one rather misty occasion I was able to watch for about ten minutes a distant arctic skua harrying all the passing sea birds. On one occasion a red-throated diver was hunting close to the point and I was able to get a reasonable digiscoped record shot of it.

Red-throated diver at Grasspoint

Away from the great birding at Grasspoint, during the day we went on various trips. We were very lucky with the weather and there was only really one day which was too wet to do much other than a drive around the island. On that day we chose a tour along Loch Scridain and Loch na Keal. By the former we were very lucky to get absolutely stunning views of an otter right by the road side on the loch shore. Along the lochs there were typically eider and red-breasted mergansers on the water and wheatears flitting along the shoreline. Grey herons were seen everywhere hunting along the water's edge. I also managed to see a common scoter in Loch Scridain, which apparently isn't that common a visitor to the island.

On a couple of occasions we took the scenic driver down to Loch Buie where the children enjoyed messing about on the beach shore. The first time down there we were lucky enough to spot a pair of huge golden eagles soaring high up in the hills along the roadside. The completely dwarfed the ravens and buzzards that were flying nearby. At Loch Buie itself there were a variety of gulls on the sand at low tide, including lesser and greater black-backed and common gulls. There were also a couple of the subtly-patterned juvenile common gulls present which are always a pleasure to see at this time of year. There were quite a few ravens here and I heard the distinctive trill of a lesser redpoll though couldn't see it. In the water itself were the usual mergansers and eiders and oystercatchers were everywhere along the shore.

One of the most memorable days on the holiday was when we decided to go on a boat trip to Staffa and the Treshnish Islands. The boat was supposed to land on both these islands where there were sea bird colonies including nesting puffins, though it was rather late in the season for them and most would have left by now. Unfortunately the day we chose for this trip it was very windy and indeed the boat skipper warned us that it would be "very choppy out there even by his standards". Foolishly we didn't take the warning and decided to go anyway. It turned out to be far more choppy than anyone had expected and most of us, especially myself were violently ill for most of the journey. It was far too rough to land on any of the islands but we did see Staffa and Fingle's Cave in spectacularly rough conditions. We even managed to see three puffins on the sea as well as a close view of a manx shearwater and a few passing auks and arctic terns. I was so ill though that I had to go to bed for the rest of the afternoon to sleep it off. A most memorable outing!

Scotch Argus butterfly: these are not found in England at all but are plentiful on the island

The highlight of the holiday was a visit to the beautiful island of Iona. This involved a drive out through the Ross of Mull to Fionnphort from where the ferry to Iona departed. The scenery was noticably more rugged on this part of the island though with fewer hills. At one point on the journey we saw a large pod of porpoises quite close in to the shore. On the island itself I had been hoping at least to hear a corncrake but it was too late in the season and there were none to be heard. There was a bonus in the form of a great skua soaring high over the monastary where we were having our picnic lunch. After lunch we decided on a walk across to the other side of the island to the poetically named Bay at the Back of the Ocean. It was a beautifully hot day and my younger daughter even got slightly sun-burned. At the bay itself there were about 20 ringed plover, 10 dunlin and a single turnstone feeding along the shoreline. A few eider duck were bobbing about in the water close to the shore. As we headed back a couple of wheatear flitted ahead of us in the grass. We stopped off in a bar for a cup of tea and some cake and sat by the waters edge looking out across the Sound of Iona where a large pod of dolphins and porpoises were leaping and rolling for some time, a wonderful end to a great day.

Great Skua soaring over Iona © David Ryan

Sadly the holiday came to an end all too quickly but I was most pleased to have seen such an interesting variety of different birds. Grasspoint turned out to be a wonderful place to stay and fitted in perfectly with the family holiday, offering as it did an opportunity for varied and interesting early morning birding before the rest of the family were awake.

Common Gull at Grasspoint

I was anticipating a few year and life ticks on this holiday but managed more than I was expecting. I was pleased to get both eagles and also the twite (which was a lifer for me) but the two skua were nice bonuses. It was also good to get closer views of puffins albeit under rather challenging circumstances. I would very much like to return to this wonderful part of the country earlier in the season in order to see the puffins nesting and at least to hear a corncrake. As a point of interest, seeing golden eagle means that there are no birds left that I saw only as a boy during the youthful phase of my birding, before the "wilderness years". Effectively I've now seen everything during the two years of "birding phase-two". Not sure how important this is but I thought that I would mention it.

National Year List 2009
210 osprey 01/08/2009 Bassenthwaite, Cumbria
211 white-tailed sea eagle 02/08/2009 Isle of Mull (LIFER)
212 eider 03/08/2009 Isle of Mull
213 twite 04/08/2009 Isle of Mull (LIFER)
214 arctic skua 04/08/2009 Isle of Mull
215 golden eagle 06/08/2009 Isle of Mull
216 great skua 07/08/2009 Iona, Isle of Mull

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Brownsea Island Roseate Tern

Roseate tern has been one of my target birds for this year that I really wanted to see. The best place is a small island off the coast of Northumberland but that's quite a journey from Oxford so I had been keeping an eye on nearer sightings, looking for something twitchable. I had noticed several reports of a pair of Roseates at Brownsea Island and I did wonder whether they might be breeding there. This suspicion was confirmed when a recent Bird Guides report mentioned two adults and a juvenile. I needed no further encouragement and planned a trip down there.

The two hour journey was uneventful and I soon found myself at 09:30am waiting for the first ferry to take me across to the island. Whilst waiting I watched the common and sandwich terns passing by. It was interesting to notice the differences with the sandwich terns which were of course bigger but flew with a less elegant flight, looking more "angular" and also surprisingly much paler compared to the commons.

Once over on the island I made my way towards the hides. There was someone from the Dorset Wildlife Trust collecting ticket money for the hides and I asked about the whereabouts of the roseate terns and was told to go to the Mac Hide and to look across to the far side for a small green box where they were nesting. Armed with this information I duely made my way to the hide and started scanning. A scan of the far side revealed quite a large number of tern shelters, some of them like miniature roofs and others boxes. There were only a couple of terns loitering over there and neither of them were roseates. After another couple of scans to make sure I started to wonder whether this was going to be a massive dip and decided to see what else was about. There was a very large (several hundred) flock of black-tailed godwits and good numbers of redshank with a few greenshank for good measure. There were also about 20 or so dunlin sprinkled about the place as were a dozen or so avocets. Carefully scanning the far bank revealed a pair of ringed plover and also two adult Mediterranean Gulls in amongst the other gulls along the far lagoon wall.

At this point a couple entered the hide and were asking about the roseate tern. I told them what I knew and decided that it was about time to have another scan. Almost immediately I found an adult bird sitting on top of one of the green boxes and the juvenile would occasionally pop out from inside the box to see if there was any food on offer. The birds were along way away and there was a fair bit of heat haze but it was sunny so my digiscoping efforts didn't come out too badly, especially after a bit of post processing.

The adult roseate tern

With the juvenile roseate tern out of its box

Very pleased with having connected with this elegant tern I eventually made my way to the other hide in order to take some photos. The godwits were obligingly close as were the avocets and I spent a good hour digiscoping and videoing away. One of the highlights was a juvenile peregrine which I first picked up flying in the distance over the back of the lagoon before it changed direction and swooped low over the lagoon straight towards the hide scattering the waders in all directions. It didn't manage to catch anything but it was most exciting.

Feeding avocet
Avocet in classic pose. Black and white birds are harder to get the autofocus to lock in on so I was pleased that these came out so well.

Posing black-tailed godwit

A feeding black-tailed godwit

One of the common terns that were nesting in front of the hide.

Some video of one of the black-tailed godwits feeding in front of the hide

This bird was perched on this post whilst I was waiting for the return ferry. I just used the camera on its own (no digiscoping) as the bird was only a yard or two away from me. I love the slightly menacing feel to this shot and the interesting perspective of having the bird so close with the house in the background.

It was about a year ago that I first went to Brownsea and it's pleasing to see how my digiscoping has progressed since then with some photos that I can be most pleased with. Of course Brownsea is a photographer's paradise with normally distant waders being amazingly close.

Another tick for the year list and in fact a lifer for me. I've now managed to see all five breeding terns as well as black and black-winged terns this year.

National Year List 2009
209 Roseate Tern Brownsea Island, Dorset