Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Farmoor Bonxie

It's been a rather quiet second half of the month. After the good weather which brought in lots of exciting early migrants the more miserable conditions for the last week or so have rather slowed things down. There have been no further little ringed plovers on Port Meadow after the initial flurry and the only real point of interest on the patch has been a trio of oystercatchers which were resting quietly late one afternoon. Usually I am on the opposite side of the floods to oystercatchers and so my photos are always distant and blurry but recently I've taken to going on the west of the floods and was therefore able to get a bit closer for my shot.

Three sleeping oystercatchers
A close up of one that woke up

A willow warbler and a cetti's warbler have both been reported on the patch which I've personally yet to catch up with. The latter is a nice find as last year was to my knowledge the first time that they've been recorded on the Meadow when we had a singing male for a few weeks though it eventually moved on. Let's hope that this one sticks around for longer.

I got a call early in the week from Farmoor stalwart Dai John saying that he had seen a rock and a water pipit along the causeway on his morning rounds. This and the fact that there were a couple of little gulls about as well was certainly enough to galvanise me into a visit down to Farmoor. Readers may remember that last year I had problems with water pipit with a bird I initially strung but then unticked and never did manage to catch up with in the end. In fact I have been left wondering just whether I have actually seen a proper water pipit in the county as the previous year my sighting had been almost as dubious as I was even more inexperienced then. I arrived at Farmoor to find conditions rather blustery and a quick walk along the causeway revealed no pipits (or indeed any birds) at all apart from a solitary pied wagtail. I met a fellow birder at the far end who said that he'd seen the rock pipit (a litoralis) but not the water pipit. Whilst I was at that end I nipped in the hide out of the wind to see if I could find the little gulls but had no luck. I'd just walked back along the causeway when I met the other birder again who said that he'd see the first winter little gull around the far side of Farmoor II. I hummed and haaed as it had started raining and I felt that I ought to make some effort at some work today but eventually decided to walk over there. I made another half-hearted scan through the legions of black-headed gulls but still without luck and so headed back for home rather despondent. Some days, things just don't click.

On the other hand, days like that are more than made up for by days when luck goes with you. A couple of days later I got a call saying that there was a bonxie at Farmoor. I had been contemplating a visit out to the Meadow but this required immediate action and I got my gear together and headed straight off for Farmoor. The traffic was rather slow and I seemed to be stuck behind one slow driver after another so it took a few minutes longer than usual to arrive there. As I pulled into the car park several other birders were also arriving and we raced up the slope to the reservoir. Ahead of me Justin Taylor seemed to be looking intently at something flying in the distance over towards Wytham Hill and I thought it prudent to see what he was following just in case it turned out to be important. Lucky that I did for it was in fact the bonxie which had just that moment flown off. Fortunately it turned around and headed back to the reservoir where I was able to get my scope on it whilst it was still in the air. It was a remarkably tatty bird with quite a number of its flight feathers missing though one could still make out the white streak across the outer wing. The bird wheeled around for a while without landing and gradually drifted off to the south and didn't return. Talk about going down to the wire: another couple of minutes and I'd have missed it altogether.

It turned out that there'd also been a first winter kittiwake on Farmoor I which had been seen just before I arrived but try as we might the assembled gang (what's the collective noun for birders - a "twitch" perhaps?) couldn't relocate it so it appeared to have moved on as well. With the help of Justin I managed finally to see the adult little gull which was hawking insects right on the far side of Farmoor II. Even at that distance its small size and very dark underwing and more rounded wings without the white leading edge stood out from the throng of black-headed gulls. A passing yellow wagtail was also briefly seen before it moved on. I lingered a bit longer after the others left, hoping to find the kittiwake (which I still need for the county) though without success. On my way back to the car I flushed a pipit on the causeway which had me excited for a while before it turned out to be a meadow pipit, albeit a rather richly coloured one.

A few more ticks for the year list to be listed and the skua is a county first for me.

National Year List 2010
123 great skua 31/03 Farmoor
124 yellow wagtail 31/03 Farmoor
125 little gull 31/03 Farmoor

Oxon Year List 2010
105 oystercatcher 28/03 Port Meadow
106 great skua 31/03 Farmoor (County Lifer)
107 yellow wagtail 31/03 Farmoor
108 little gull 31/03 Farmoor

Thursday, 25 March 2010

March Bits & Bobs

Nothing major to report so another miscellaneous bits and pieces round up of some local birding and news. I've spent almost all my birding time on Port Meadow this month, partly as a result of my experience last year when the floods had all dried up by May so I feel that it's important to get the most from it whilst the water is still there. There's not been anything terribly unusual with little ringed plover and some passing black-tailed godwits making up the main interest but it's great to get down there each day and to see what's dropped in and what new summer migrants have arrived. I've had swallows and sand martins hawking over the Meadow already and a couple of days ago I heard the first singing chiffchaffs in Burgess Field. It's always great when the summer birds do actually turn up again, very much a feeling of affirming that spring is here and that better weather is coming. Funnily enough I don't feel quite the same way about the winter migrants arriving, it's more a depressing confirmation that darker days are ahead!

Last weekend I did manage a Sunday morning visit to Wytham Wood with L, my three and a half year old son, in tow. I've not taken L for some time now as he's not so much of a burden at home now and also now he's old enough to know his own mind and being dragged out birding is not high up on his list of priorities at present. However he seemed reasonably persuadable that morning, especially with the promise of an early Easter egg to take with him (what kind of crap dad am I?). We had a gentle stroll up the hill from the car park with my priority being finding some marsh tits which I duly did. It was all a bit quiet in the wood so I suppose that with the better weather the birds are now more actively calling at first light. There were some calling buzzards flying about overhead and several nuthatches including an obliging bird which sat still long enough for me to digiscope him. L enjoyed the trip, not only for the bonus egg but also because we stopped of at Wolvercote playground for a while on the way back.

Wytham nuthatch

After my excitement at finding a Med. gull on the Meadow a while back I've seen two more this month though one was found by someone else (James Grundy) who kindly texted me so that could come down to see it.

Another adult summer plumaged Med. gull that really stood out from the crowd
There were less gulls around to obscure this one (found by James Grundy) though it was quite dark by the time I saw it

Various black-tailed godwit flocks have been dropping in though never staying for very long. They do look very smart in their summer colours though

Some good news and some sad news to report. The good news is that the lesser black-backed gull that I rescued on the 4th February last month has been nursed back to health by Tiggywinkles and was released back into the wild. I have been amazed at how much time and effort Tiggywinkles have spent just on one gull. It really is a great place! The not so good news is that I found another injured gull on the Meadow a week or so ago and took it back home with the intention of taking it to the same place. However within an hour of my bringing it home it had died in the box that I put it in. I don't know whether it was the stress of it all (I know that small birds are very susceptible to this) or whether I did something wrong (perhaps it got too hot or was thirsty or something) but the fact is that it wouldn't have lasted long out on the Meadow anyway. Still I was rather saddened by the outcome.

The injured herring gull

I've got a bit excited because we arranged a last minute Easter holiday down to the far reaches of Cornwall again. We often go down either at this time of year or in the autumn but took a break last year after our "Cottage of Vomit" experience the previous autumn when we all got a 24 hour tummy bug one after another. I've been doing some research on Bird Guides and unfortunately the Penwith peninsula is not really the rarity magnet that it is in the autumn but there should be a few interesting birds to catch up with and I should at least be able to put in a few hours of sea watching which is not something I get to do much of normally.

One more piece of news. I was rather pleased to find that Bird Guides used my photo of the Thorpe Marshes rough-legged buzzard in their weekly round-up which they send out to all subscribers. They send out a text-only e-mail but also include write-up on their web site with photos and my buzzard photos was used for this. I did have a sneaking suspicion that it might have been used as I've not seen any close up photos of any of the Norfolk RL buzzards all winter. It seems that my policy of "if I can see it in the scope and it stays still for long enough I'll digiscope it" paid off! Actually I have had a couple of previous photos used for the weekly round up: the Appleford Baltic gull and the Sonning Eye American wigeon both from last year.

Just a couple more ticks to add to the year lists. Soon the bulk of the warblers will start arriving and things will kick off properly.

Oxon Year List 2010
103 marsh tit 21/03 Wytham Wood
104 chiffchaff 23/03 Burgess Field

National Year List 2010
121 marsh tit 21/03 Wytham Wood
122 chiffchaff 23/03 Burgess Field

Friday, 19 March 2010

Know your plovers

I have long know that it's actually when things don't go according to plan that one learns the most. I find that this rule applies to many walks of life and in fact I once came across the definition of an expert as being someone who's made all the mistakes that there are to make in a given field. Well, I was pretty sure that I knew how to tell the difference between a ringed and a little ringed plover and yet there was still something to learn on this subject. Many of you may be wondering why this should be much of an issue but for me, with my patch being Port Meadow, I get both types of plover turning up all the time and I often find them when I'm out on my run so I only have my bins with me. My usual tactic is to employ a bit of field craft and to get close enough (usually by crawling through the mud) so that I can see the yellow of the eye ring or not as the case may be. However I've long felt that some of the features that are visible from more of a distance ought to be usable to identify them from further away even without a scope and recently I had an opportunity to learn more about what one can and cannot rely on.

The other day I got a call to say that little ringed plover had been found on the Meadow that morning, the first of the year for the county. As I was about to head out there on my run anyway I decided to take my point & shoot camera with me to see if I could get some sort of shot and off I set. I soon came across the bird though it was to the North of the Meadow floods and so needed to be approached from the Wolvercote end of the floods, not that this was a problem as my traditional running circuit passes back that way anyway. Unfortunately it was rather awkwardly located in some quite boggy parts of the floods so I wasn't able to get as close to it as I normally am able. I gave it a grilling through my bins but couldn't get a clear view of the eye ring. I took a photo below and considered it further at home.
The plover in question

At home I consulted my Collins paying particular attention to the broadness of the bulge in the breast band and also the relative smoothness of the bulge in the eye mask beneath the eye. According to the guide it appeared that a little ringed plover should have a rather pointy eye mask bulge and a thin breast band. That coupled with the lack of the yellow eye ring had me wondering whether it wasn't in fact actually a ringed plover. Despite the dark bill, this feature can be present on winter plumaged and juvenile ringed plovers. Given that the original finder who'd had a scope and who was a very experienced and very sharp birder, I thought that I would seek a second opinion and duly sent the photo off to Ian Lewington. His response was that it was a little ringed plover for the following reasons:

1. The overall jizz and daintiness of the bird
2. The breast band and eye mask bulginess are not reliable features apparently. The look of the breast can depend on how the bird is standing and the eye mask is a useful supporting feature but is not diagnostic.
3. The side of the bird that we're looking at is in deep shadow on a very bright day, hence the difficulty in seeing the eye ring
4. The white under tail coverts wrap around a bit at the back which is a useful little ringed plover diagnostic.
5. The white on the crown between the black forehead band and the brown cap is diagnostic

He even sent me the following photo which clearly illustrates how unreliable the breast band and eye mask bulges are.

An LRP with bulging breast band and smooth eye mask (c) Ian Lewington

So yet another bird identification error for me but an educational one. Funnily enough having seen quite a few more little ringed plovers on the Meadow over the last few days now I think that I may well have got a sense of their jizz now anyway and in fact when I now look at the original photo it immediately looks like a little ringed plover! It's always interesting to learn about what ID features one can actually rely upon, something that even the best guide books don't seem to tell you and the wrap-around tail coverts is a very interesting pointer which I'd certainly not come across before.

Here's a videograb I took which clearly shows the wrap-around under tail coverts.

Another few ticks to add to the year list tallies. It's all kicking off on Port Meadow at present and I am down there twice a day to see what's about.

Oxon Year List 2010
099 ringed plover 15/03/2010 Port Meadow
100 little ringed plover 16/03/2010 Port Meadow
101 swallow 18/03/2010 Port Meadow
102 sand martin 18/03/2010 Port Meadow

National Year List 2010
118 little ringed plover 16/03/2010 Port Meadow
119 swallow 18/03/2010 Port Meadow
120 sand martin 18/03/2010 Port Meadow

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Baggers Woodcock & Meadow Med. Gull

Yesterday was a "Good Birding Day". It was all local stuff and nothing spectacular but it's always nice when you find birds that you are after and when a bonus turns up it's even better.

As regular readers will know I like to go running regularly and often combine this with my birding. I'd recently been to Bagley Wood for the crossbills and had noticed that there had been quite a few reports of woodcock from there as well. I got to thinking that it would be nice to see one of these elusive birds again and decided therefore that a little run around Baggers was called for. I asked one of the local birders (Wayne Bull) who had recently seen three woodcock at this location where he'd had them and armed with this information I set off. Basically woodcocking involves going off piste and just tramping around and I initially tried the area that Wayne had suggested but with no luck. So after that I simply followed my nose, heading off into the woods in any spot that looks reasonable. I'm not exactly sure what sort of terrain woodcock like best as it's quite varied at Bagley: one moment its closely planted conifers and the next its widely spaced beech or oak trees. I had a vague feeling that the trees shouldn't be too close together and that they liked good varied ground cover and it was in such an area that I flushed first one and then close by a second bird. Not the greatest of views as they clattered off into the woods ahead of me but nice to see nevertheless. Whilst on my travels around the wood I did come across a small pool at which a number of birds were drinking: there were a few goldfinches, some chaffinches and best of all a flock of at least nine crossbills, most of which appeared to be lovely scarlet males. I remember being told that crossbills get very thirsty from their pine seed diet (something to do with the resin perhaps) and had been told that it was always good to look for them near to water.

Later that day it was getting on for five o'clock and I felt that I'd had enough of work for the day so thought that I would head down to the Meadow to catch the gull roost. I've been dutifully scanning through the roost recently for ring-billed gulls (which would be a great county rarity) and also Med. gulls as now is peak passage time for these birds. Now I have a bit of an issue with Med. gulls: I know what they look like but I've been at Farmoor with gull guru Nic Hallam who seems to be able to pick them out at a distance of several hundred yards almost instantly. I've managed to find a couple myself on the Meadow last year: one was a lovely juvenile which stood out like a sore thumb in a flock of about a thousand black-headed gulls; the other was a rather dodgy id of one flying away from me in the distance which probably wasn't my finest hour of bird identification. Apart from these two instances, I always scan through the Meadow black-headed flock whenever possible but so far have not actually managed to find a Med. gull in amongst them and this has lead to some doubt: have there actually been no Med. gulls to be found in the flock or am I just missing them? Anyway, yesterday evening there I was on the Meadow again scanning through the flock as usual when I spotted something that did actually really set my gull senses tingling. Below is the view that I had.

Spot the Med. Gull!

The hood was more black than the surrounding chocolate brown of the BHG's and it also extended further down the back of the head. I set about videoing it and a short while later it briefly popped its head up enabling me to confirm my suspicions and also to rejoice that my Med. gull sixth sense did actually seem to be working after all! As the late faded I took some more video of it and enjoyed this beautiful gull.

...and with his head up

...and some video footage

I was very pleased to have found such a nice gull on my local patch. They are seen once or twice each year on the Meadow but it was nice to pick one out in that way and shows that all my efforts with gulls are starting to pay off.

Apropos of nothing, I wanted to publish a birding action shot that Jason Coppock took on our trip to Norfolk this weekend.

Birding Action Shot: me grilling the taiga's at Cantley (c) Jason Coppock

A couple more ticks for the year lists from a good day's birding.

National Year List 2010
116 Woodcock 09/03 Bagley Wood
117 Mediterranean Gull 09/03 Port Meadow

Oxon Year List 2010
097 Woodcock 09/03 Bagley Wood
098 Mediterranean Gull 09/03 Port Meadow

Monday, 8 March 2010

Rough-legs in Norfolk

Having already had a big staying-overnight trip to Norfolk this winter I was not anticipating another trip to this region any time soon. Indeed when local birder Jason "Badger" Coppock suggested a day trip there to see the rough-legged buzzards I initially turned him down, saying that it was a bit far to travel in one day. However it's been such a quiet February that the lack of any bird action was starting to take its toll. I found myself looking at how far it was to Gigrin Farm in deepest darkest Wales and even found myself thinking that driving over three hours each way there wasn't too bad. I know that seasoned birders will laugh at my timidity in travelling too far for my birding but you must remember that I'm relatively new to all this still and am certainly not a hardcore twitcher in any way. However I was champing at the bit for some bird action and so decided to take Jason up on his offer. I accordingly spent a couple of weeks being a bit of a chore whore at home in order to gain sufficient brownie points for a full day out birding. Jason had originally said that if we went mid week it would be a 5:30 a.m. start to avoid the traffic which I rather balked at (again I'm clearly not a hardcore twitcher) but we could leave later at the weekend and after some negotiation we settled on 6:30. I think Jason was actually secretly pleased about the relatively late start as he'd come back from Gigrin Farm the previous day and was glad of a "lie-in". The plan was to try Thorpe Marshes and Chedgrave Marshes first for the rough-legs, nip around to the Buckenham area for the Taiga bean geese, then look for cranes in the traditional area near the coast. If we had time after that then Jason was quite keen to see the Sheringham glaucous gull as there's not been one in Oxon for a couple of years now though I'd seen the Calvert bird this year in Bucks.

The journey there was uneventful and we made good time, arriving in Haddiscoe in under three hours. I'd done my homework for the trip and had little maps printed out of where to go for the various birds. For the Thorpe Marshes buzzard one needed to pull in at the first layby on the A143 once one left Haddiscoe heading towards St. Olaves. Knowing that the bird was to the north-west of the road I was looking for a layby on the left of the road and we eventually found one though it was further along the road than I was expecting. We piled out and started to scan. Within about twenty seconds I found a distance buzzard on a post and we proceeded to give it a good scoping. It was certainly striking having a very pale streaked head, a dark upper breast, then a pale lower breast band with dark markings along its lower flanks. As it was facing us we couldn't really see its tail. Jason remarked that it should fly soon but I remembered how it had been reported recently as often sitting there for some time. Fortunately Jason was right and it soon took off revealing the diagnostic while tail with a broad black terminal band and also a rather pale underwing with the classic dark carpal patches. The bird proceeded to go through its repertoire with some soaring, a bit of hovering, flying quite high and then settle on a post again much closer to us so I was able to get some decent record shots despite the heat haze and the wind. We were joined by a local birder who had been watching it further up the road. Apparently we were in the wrong layby though he did say that this was as good a view of the bird as he'd had all winter. It was also Jason's best view of a rough-legged (he'd wanted to come on the trip as previous views hadn't been so great) and it was in fact my first one ever so everyone was happy. The local explained how the pale head was indicative of a juvenile and that there was also an adult bird about (mostly seen at Chedgrave Marshes) which had more of a greyish tail and a darker head. After a while the bird soared off towards Chedgrave and our local guide offered to let us follow him there which we duly did.

I managed a few still digiscoped shots of the Thorpe Marshes rough-legged buzzard of which this was the best.

Also a videograb of the bird

and Some video footage

It was a relatively short journey of some five minutes to the car park there and a further five minutes to walk through the wood to the Chedgrave Marshes viewing "mound". This viewing mound was actually only a few metres high though we joked that for Norfolk this must be quite a height. From this vantage point one could view out over some reed beds which surrounded the river Waveney in the foreground and in the distance some rough marsh land. Within a few minutes we picked up some short-eared owls and marsh harriers quartering over the area as well as a few distant common buzzards but there was no sign of any rough-legs which apparently hadn't been seen there for several hours. This made us all the more appreciative of how quickly and well we'd seen our bird and we decided to head on to the next port of call.

The next stop was Buckenham Marshes. Our "guide" had suggested scoping from the station platform but Jason had a little local knowledge of his own and we went to Cantley instead where one only needed to walk a few yards along a footpath to get a view of the Yare valley. We viewed from here and soon found some canda geese in the distance and then a little closer a flock of bean geese. The heat haze and wind made things a little difficult to view though we could just make out their bills. My videograb record shot was absolute rubbish but if you squint you can just make out some orange in the bill.

The Cantley Taiga Bean Geese

With the score at two out of two so far we went on to what was probably going to be the hardest part of the trip, namely trying to find some cranes. There was always the roost at Stubb Mill and I'd read that they can be seen there earlier in the day though we were keen not to have to hang around too long. We decided that we would do a trawl of the traditional area between West Somerton and Waxham and duly made our way off in that direction. We started off along the road keeping our eyes peeled though it soon became apparent that it wasn't going to be easy to spot them even if they were there as there was lots of hiding places they could be tucked away in. After a while we spotted a couple of birders in the opposite direction and we stopped to ask them if they'd seen any cranes. "At least seven" came back the reply so we got directions and were soon heading off along a well-defined path. I'm being deliberately a bit vague about the exact location as I'm not sure how sensitive this sort of information is even though it's a traditional crane area. According to our instructions we had to walk for about a mile during which we saw a barn owl catch a vole and found a flock of grey lags with a single pink-foot in amongst them. I know that in Norfolk pink-foots are dead common but as an Oxon county birder I still get rather excited when I see them! After a while it all got rather birdless and I was beginning to think that our luck was running out when Jason spotted three cranes not too far in front of us. One of them was a first winter with drabber brown body feathering and lacking the white neck and head stripe. The wind and haze hampered the record shot efforts but I dutifully recorded them for posterity.

The adult and first winter

and again

Most chuffed to have scored our cranes relatively painlessly we were now onto "bonus birds" and decided to head north to Sheringham for the glaucous gull. Jason had mentioned how painfully difficult it was to get from east to north Norfolk and it took the best part of an hour to make our way up there though we did get briefly lost in the maze of back roads near Sea Palling (my fault as I was navigating). Driving past Cromer we saw a flock of oystercatchers on the fields but apart from that the journey was uneventful. Sheringham was a busy little place on a Saturday so we slowly made our way to the sea front and stopped in a small car park there. There were only about a dozen or so large gulls there and we soon picked out the glaucous. It seemed to be coming rather close to the top of the beach and as I could spy a photographer there I wondered if some food had been put out. This turned out to be correct and a bag of fish heads and offal had been strategically dumped on the beach so that from our raised vantage point the bird was often no more than some fifteen metres away, certainly the closest views of a glaucous gull that I've ever had. In fact it was too close to digiscope eaily (though Jason managed it) so I took some shots with my P&S Panasonic with the x10 optical zoom which came out OK.

The glaucous gull on the beach

and his other side

doing an impersonation of an angel!

An obliging turnstone though it was severely back-lit

With the score now 4 out of 4 and it getting late in the day we thought that we'd have one more try for a reported snow goose at Snettisham that morning. I seemed to recall that it had been there yesterday as well so we headed off, frustratingly slowly, towards Snetters. We took a sneaky short-cut towards the end and saw a couple of Egyptian geese for our troubles together with what looked like a brood of youngsters! We arrived at the Snettisham car park at just before 5pm and quickly yomped off towards the lagoons and the Rotary hide where it had been reported. On the way we saw a nice male stonechat and I tried unsuccessfully to string a silhoutetted goldfinch into a twite. There were surprisingly few geese on the lagoons at all and the mudflats held mostly shelduck with a few other waders dotted around. We could see some geese flying in and landing somewhere though we couldn't make out where so it seemed that the snow goose was a tick too far.

We decided to walk back along the shingle beach to see if we could find the shore larks and were about half way back when a couple of birds flew over making a call that I remembered from last time I was here. Their yellow heads stood out in the evening sun light confirming them as the two shore larks which landed some fifty yards behind us along the beach. We accordingly went back and spent a pleasant but chilly few minutes scoping and photographing them though I was a little disappointed at how few of the photos came out though the video footage was ok.

One of the shore larks. The low viewing angle meant that the autofocus was often not very accurate and many of my shots were out of focus

Some video footage of the two birds

With the light now fading we made our way back to the car but Jason had one more trick up his sleeve in the form of a visit to a "traditional" hen harrier roost. We arrived (noting a barn owl en route) to find a couple of cars already there and two males and a female harrier performing well. It appeared that each time one of them would land in the scrub as another flew over it would put it the first one up again so they kept landing and flying up again. Strange but most entertaining to watch. By now it was getting dark and it had suddenly got very cold so we didn't stay long.

A most successful day out indeed with the birding gods very much smiling on us. To have got all our target birds and several bonus birds was a treat indeed and I'd even managed a couple of lifers as well as five year list ticks. In addition, whilst the Taiga bean geese aren't a BOU tick they are a UK400 club one and I'm told that they may well be ripe for a split at some point. As a point of interest, I've been contemplating this listing malarky and was thinking that from a birders point of view the more you can tick the better so why not have a "tick ever sub-species" list? I've not implemented this yet though I may muse on this more in future entries.

National Year List 2010
110 lesser redpoll 05/03, Garden, Oxon
111 rough-legged buzzard 06/03 Thorpe Marshes, Norfolk (LIFER)

112 short-eared owl 06/03 Chedgrave Marshes, Norfolk
113 crane 06/03 "Traditional", Norfolk (LIFER)
114 egyptian goose 06/03 Snettisham, Norfolk
115 hen harrier 06/03 "Traditional", Norfolk

Taiga Bean Goose, 06/03 Cantley, Norfolk

Friday, 5 March 2010

Dix Drake Smew

Yesterday morning I got an e-mail from local birder Steve Bell saying that he'd been to Dix Pit that morning and had seen a drake smew there at a very close distance. As regular readers will know I'd been trying to see a drake smew all winter but despite a number of birds being present in the county in what has turned out to be a good smew year I'd hitherto been unsuccessful. Therefore I decided to nip down there for a late morning jaunt.

There was a chilly wind blowing so despite the sunshine it was decidedly cold and I dressed up in my full winter gear including gloves as I scanned the pit. There was no sign of it at close quarters so it was the usual process of carefully scanning all areas of the pit and hoping that it wasn't tucked behind one of the two islands. I soon located it by the first island but before I could get much of a video of it it took off though thankfully I later relocated it right out in the middle of the pit. Videoing it at this distance was a complete nightmare. The scope was cranked up to x60 and I'd drilled down on the camera zoom to but of course it kept diving and in the bright light it was hard to see it in the camera monitor. Added to this, the autofocus that makes videoing the preferred choice in difficult conditions doesn't work too well with all white birds. Fortunately at extreme range in a photo a drake smew is a white blob with a bit of black in it and this does mean that when post processing it one can crank the sharpening "up to 11" and it doesn't come out too bad.

As you can see it sharpens up ok so the smew actually looks more realistic than the accompanying wigeon. Anyway, it's just a record shot

No ticks to add to the list as I've not formally started keeping a separate list for male and female county birds (yet!) though this was my first drake smew for the county.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Local Bits & Bobs

It's been a really quiet February. I know this because when it came to the end of the month and I started to gather together what photos I'd taken for the month to send in for the monthly OOS bulletin all I could find was my one decent shot of the five Port Meadow knot and a rather ropey videograb of a black-tailed godwit (see last entry). There have been a few local outings which I thought I'd write-up but nothing particularly earth-shattering.

I had my first trip up to Farmoor Reservoir a couple of weeks ago. I had been intending to nip out to Appleford to check out some hot gull action but it was getting rather late so in the end I opted for the Farmoor gull roost. I was amazed at how empty Farmoor was with very few ducks around and pretty modest gull roost. The hightlight of the trip was some great views of a barn owl hunting near the north west corner of Farmoor I. I met up with Nic Hallam there who was saying that ring-billed gulls are the gull du jour with the possibility of them showing up in the county so I've taken this to heart and have dutifully been grilling any gull flocks I come across for this rare transatlantic visitor.

I've still been visiting Port Meadow on a regular basis, either on a run with my bins or on my bike with my scope. The most interesting recent sighting happened last Sunday when I had just found myself confronted with some rather deep water near the boats. As I'd run all the way through Burgess Field and around the floods to get back to this point it was either wade or face a rather long retracement of my route so I elected to take the wet option. I was just savouring the coldness in my toes when I flock of birds came in and landed near by. A quick glance through the bins revealed them to be a flock of nine barnacle geese. They hung around for a few minutes during which time I made my way around to get a little nearer before a couple of grey lags took off and spooked the flock which flew off low to the north. I did wonder whether they might have stopped on the Hinterland somewhere but there have been no further reports of them. It's a tricky call with sightings like this: there is a flock of ten or so barnacles kicking around which was seen for example last autumn at Farmoor but it is also the time of year when wild birds are on the move. In terms of tickability, I'm going to include it on my county year list (I already have it on my national one through a (slighty dodgy) one at Snettisham and on the Port Meadow year list but not on my county life list.

I had a lunch-time quickie up at Dix Pit a few days ago: a pair of smew had been reported the previous day including a drake which I've yet to see in the county despite several attempts this year already. There was glorious sunshine and not much wind and I spent a very pleasant hour rummaging through the ducks and gulls there. No sign of the smew (of course) but there was a pair of red-crested pochard and in amongst the gulls were two first winter Caspians which I am pleased to say stood out a mile. Regular readers will know that I've been wrestling with the whole Caspian ID issue for some time but my hard work must be paying off because not only did they tick all the right boxes but they "felt right" as well. O dear, I'm starting to sound as crazed as the most hardened gull addicts now! Jason Coppock, who is starting to get the same gull bug and has confessed to me that he's spending most weekends down at Appleford looking for Caspians, has a theory that Med. gulls are a "gateway gull" which lead one on to the hardcore gull stuff from which there is no return.

Now that March is hear I've stepped up my visits to the Meadow and am looking forward to the first migrants arriving. Having been told that ring-billed gulls are a possibility and with March being the prime Med. gull passage time I'm dutifully grilling the Meadow evening gull roost. Dusk is now at around 6pm so I'm staying until just before then before having to scoot back home for dinner. I've noticed how many birds are arriving rather late with far more common gulls than I'd normally come across. There are also upwards of a thousand black-headed gulls to sift through though because they are rather densely packed and standing rather than bobbing aruond on the water á lá Farmoor it's harder to see all of them properly. So far my only reward for my efforts has been a yellow-legged gull. Interestingly enough, despite it's much darker mantle and small white apical spots on the primaries I don't have a feel for the jizz of a YLG and felt that the bird seemed rather "kind" and not fierce quite enough. Accordingly I check with our esteemed county recorder who assured me that it was probably a female hence the relatively modest size and kindness. I find this kind of help with gull ID issue invaluable and feel very lucky to have such good access to true gull grand masters such as Ian Lewington and Nic Hallam.

Not much in the way of photos to offer for this entry so I've included some of my better efforts from the Meadow. This knot stayed around for some time though it finally seems to have gone.
There have been a few shelduck around for a while now including this handsome male.

Here's the record video footage of the yellow-legged gull. Apologies for the shaking around at the start but my tripod is getting a bit "sticky" when panning and at x60 mag and x3 zoom on the camera, making x180 the slightest nudge can have a big effect!

Just a few odd ticks to add to the year lists

Oxon Year List 2010
093 barn owl 19/02/2010 Farmoor
094 barnacle goose 26/02/2010 Port Meadow
095 Caspian gull 01/03/2010 Dix Pit

National Year List 2010
108 barn owl 19/02/2010 Farmoor
109 Caspian gull 01/03/2010 Dix Pit