Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Waiting for Something Good

Since my last entry I've been pounding the patch, waiting for something good to turn up. I was rather disappointed that the hoopoe hunt came to nothing and am starting to feel "twitchy" about seeing something new so I shan't be surprised if I find myself heading off somewhere in the near future if nothing good turns up in the county shortly. In the mean time it's been a matter of catching up with the various spring migrants as they turn up. Many of the birds I know will turn up at the patch and I supplemented this with a recent lunch-time visit to Otmoor.

I've managed to get the complete set of 10 county warblers all within my patch which has been nice. Lesser whitethroat and cetti's aren't always guaranteed though the last couple of years now we've at least had them passing through. The last warblers in were the garden warblers and Burgess Field in my patch is now alive with warblers everywhere.

Digiscoping warblers is tough at the best of times but this garden warbler stayed put long enough for me to get a few shots off.

There were some summer birds that I wasn't likely to get on the patch so I decided on a lunch-time run to Otmoor as a change from running around the patch. I was hoping to find a whinchat or two and therefore chose a day when there would be no firing range activity so I could visit the Saunders Ground and the Pill where I saw some whinchat last year. I also feel that this area is not watched as heavily as the other areas so it would benefit from a visit. I was amazed at how lush and verdant it all was and there were warblers everywhere you looked or listened. There were plenty of butterflies to be seen with brimstones, small whites, orange-tips, peacocks and small tortoiseshells all on the wing. I first headed over the Saunders Ground where I was rewarded with the sight of a marsh harrier zooming low over the hedge with something quite large in its talons being pursued by a red kite which was mobbing it and trying to get it to drop its catch. However the kite was far too slow to keep up with the harrier which sped off to the next field to eat in peace. There were no whinchat to be seen but a pair of garganey on the Pill itself was good compensation and I also heard a distant calling curlew and a cuckoo. Back along the bridleway and a turtle dove was purring away and two were briefly glimpsed. I had my first visit to the new hide which is very impressive and spacious inside and the Ashgrave floods were looking good though ideally they could benefit from a bit more vegetation around the scrapes. A cracking male wheatear was making use of the new posts in Big Otmoor just by the screen turn-off. This was in fact (rather embarassingly) my first wheatear of the year for the county. Several times on my visit I saw a single hobby flying around though it could have been the same one each time.

The wheatear by the turn off to the first screen, making use of the posts (taken with my P&S camera)

I finally got my first terns of the year with a pair of common terns on the Meadow. I've not managed to catch up with the artic terns that have been passing through Farmoor so far (not that I've tried) though I think that they've mostly been fly-throughs. There have also been some sandwich terns passing through which I still need for the county though the first lot were a fly-through and the second were reported at Cassington GP somewhat after the event (I presume).

Two common terns on Port Meadow

Some book keeping for the year lists. I am allowing heard-only for both national and county year lists and finding it very nice not to have to chase all over the place for stuff once I've heard it. So far the only birds which are actually heard only are cetti's, cuckoo and the Oxon curlew though I dare say I'll get to see them in due course. In the mean time it's back to waiting. With Port Meadow looking pretty good at present coming into May I'm expecting at the very least a wood sandpiper there and am really holding out for something much rarer. We shall see!

Oxon Year List 2010
122 lesser whitethroat 22/04 Burgess Field
123 reed warbler 23/04 Trap Grounds

124 garden warbler 24/04 Burgess Field

125 swift 24/04 Kingston Road

126 hobby 26/04 Otmoor

127 turtle dove 26/04 Otmoor
128 cuckoo 26/04 Otmoor

129 wheatear 26/04 Otmoor

130 marsh harrier 26/04 Otmoor

131 curlew 26/04 Otmoor

132 common tern 27/04 Port Meadow

National Year List 2010
152 lesser whitethroat 22/04 Burgess Field
153 reed warbler 23/04 Trap Grounds

154 garden warbler 24/04 Burgess Field

155 swift 24/04 Kingston Road

156 hobby 26/04 Otmoor

157 turtle dove 26/04 Otmoor

158 cuckoo 26/04 Otmoor

159 common tern 27/04 Port Meadow

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Patch Envy & Hoopoe Hunting

Since coming back from Cornwall I've been keeping an eye on sightings there and you may recall that I met up with the lucky birder who has Polgigga as his patch. He goes out twice a day with his son to see what's about. During the week of the holiday the only thing he turned up was a hoopoe on a couple of occasions but I notice that this week he's found a wryneck at the end of the lane and the next day had a bee-eater on the telegraph wire along the lane and a tawny pipit fly over as well as the wryneck still being there. It rather puts my patch garganey and osprey into perspective - I've got real patch envy!

This morning I was midway through a run around Burgess Field (first whitethroat and sedgie of the year) when I got a text to say that a hoopoe had been found at Marsh Baldon by that birding rarity machine Phil Barnett. I ran back as fast as I've ever done and bundled my gear into the car, arriving to find Jason Coppock and a couple of the Wyatt brothers already present. Gradually more birders turned up and we split up to scour the area. There were loads of lush (vicar-ish) lawns by the village houses as well as plenty of farm buildings and fields so it all looked like hoopoe heaven though it did make trying to find it rather a needle in a haystack situation. Jason Coppock did manage to see it flying once so we all headed off in that direction and continued searching. During this time I saw a yellow wagtail with Phil Barnett and a yellowhammer (my first of the year) but there was no sign of the hoopoe. It could have moved on or it could be hiding in any one of a hundred different locations. Hopefully it will turn up again though they are notoriously hard to twitch.

A bit of list book keeping:

National Year List 2010
149 sedge warbler 21/04/2010 Burgess Field
150 whitethroat 21/04/2010 Burgess Field
151 yellowhammer 21/04/2010 Marsh Baldon

Oxon Year List 2010
119 sedge warbler 21/04/2010 Burgess Field
120 whitethroat 21/04/2010 Burgess Field
121 yellowhammer 21/04/2010 Marsh Baldon

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Linkey Down Ouzels

As regular readers will know, I've tried a couple of times already for ring ouzels at the traditional Linkey Down site this year and once back from my holiday I was keen finally to catch up with these elusive thrushes. So on Saturday morning I decided to do my weekly shopping trip to Summertown via Linkey Down which is rather tenuous I know but as long I was back by lunch-time with the correct shopping and having done the recycling I figured I should be OK. It was a glorious sunny day and unlike last time, thankfully there were no traffic incidents and I soon arrived at the layby where there was already one car. When I got to the slopes themselves there were already several birders within the enclosure and a quick question soon discovered that they were trying to get a better view of several ouzels which were at the head of the valley. I joined them and soon got brief views of a male and a female. One of the other birders then found a first summer which I didn't see. The birds were their usual skulking selves and it was very difficult to get any kind of decent photo though I did manage a couple of record shots. While we were there someone came over and reported that there were several other ouzels on the other (motorway) side of the hill and one of our party who was packing an SLR went off in that direction. A short time later we heard a "chack-chack" call (like a fieldfare) and a male ring ouzel flew to the top of a neighbouring tree before flying down into the valley to join the other birds. I managed to get a few more occasional glimpses before I felt I had to leave in order to fulfil my shopping obligations. Interestingly enough, one of the visitors there said that he came each year in the middle weekend of April to look for ring ouzels and has only once ever dipped. In fact he calls this date "Ring Ouzel Weekend". I'll remember that for next year rather than trying too early as I have done this year.

A male showing amongst the many little tussocks
A blurry close-up of the male

Apart from my trip to Linkey Down, I've been working away at Port Meadow, the local patch. Most of the winter ducks have now left and it's much more empty which does mean that one can more quickly see if there's anything good about. On Sunday I was delighted to find a splendid drake gargeney dabbling away on the floods. He's stayed for four days now which has been really nice as last year we didn't have any on the Meadow.

A couple of shots of the Port Meadow drake garganey. He's always been on the far side of the floods so I've resorted to my weapon of choice in such circumstances: the digiscoped videograb.

I've been in no hurry to catch up with any of the warblers as I know they'll eventually turn up on the patch and sure enough at last they are starting to do so. The grasshopper warblers are now back and I saw my first whitethroat and sedge warbler this morning as well. The only warbler that I may have to go to Otmoor for is the lesser whitethroat which doesn't seem to breed on Burgess Field though last year a couple did pass through.

A rather atmospheric videograb of a grasshopper warbler taken at dusk through a hedge

A more conventional shot taken with my P&S camera whilst out on a run

Yesterday I got a real bonus whilst out on the Meadow: I was just giving the floods a final scan when all the ducks went up and circled around for a bit though I couldn't obviously see any disturbance. At the same time I kept hearing some large gulls mewing away though I couldn't see them anywhere on the floods. Finally I looked up and in the sky overhead were three or so large gulls which were half heartedly mobbing (or at least taunting) an osprey. I managed to get it in my scope and tracked it for a few minutes until it drifted off to the north. A very nice patch tick! I have a theory that the Meadow offers a bit of a corridor for migrating ospreys as they've been seen several times in the last couple of years: to the west you've got Wytham Hill and to the east the city itself and you've got the river, the A34 and the railway as possible navigational aids all heading north at this point. It's just a theory but for now I'm sticking to it.

A few more ticks for the year list to tally up though nothing particularly unusual.

National Year List 2010
145 grasshopper warbler 16/04/2010 Burgess Field
146 ring ouzel 17/04/2010 Linkey Down

147 garganey 18/04/2010 Port Meadow

148 osprey 20/04/2010 Port Meadow

Oxon Year List 2010
115 grasshopper warbler 16/04/2010 Burgess Field
116 ring ouzel 17/04/2010 Linky Down

117 garganey 18/04/2010 Port Meadow

118 osprey 20/04/2010 Port Meadow

Saturday, 17 April 2010

A Week in Cornwall

As mentioned previously, we decided on a last minute family holiday to Cornwall this Easter. It is a location which we often visit and we always go down to the Penwith peninsula which is the furthest south-west you can go. There the coastal scenery is stunning, the beaches are great and there are plenty of walks to go on. In addition to all this it also just happens to be one of the top birding locations in the country for vagrants and also has some of the top sea watching locations in the shape of Porthgwarra, Pendeen and St. Ives. As I mentioned previously, some research had indicated that actually April was rather a quiet time down there and it more comes into its own in the autumn but even so there was always going to be something of interest to see. To add some motivation, a male woodchat shrike had been down there at Church Cove, near the southern tip of the Lizard peninsula for over a week and I was really hoping that it might stay until we got down there.

The drive down there was uneventful; we stopped off at Tintagel en route where nesting fulmars were noted, a dozen razorbills were loafing out at sea and a peregrine was seen soaring high over the town. We were staying in a converted mill house in Penberth, which is the first of the series of valleys around Lands End. The other valleys read like a roll call of famous birding locations: Porthcurno, Porthgwarra, Nanjizal, Land's End, Nanquidno and Cot Valley all within a short drive of where we were staying. I'd changed my Bird Guides subscription to pick up just Cornwall and I didn't even want to know what I might be missing back home whilst I was away as otherwise the gripp-off would spoil the holiday. Friday evening I walked up the hill to where I could get a phone signal (it was that remote) and sure enough the woodchat shrike had still been there that day. So the next morning I got up at 5:45am and was out the door just before 6am. It was just starting to get light as I headed off and I saw a tawny owl fly over the road ahead of me, presumably heading back to roost for the day. I arrived at Church Cove at around 6:50am and was in position just before 7am, staring at the patch of gorse where the shrike had been hanging out. After a short period I noticed the bird, actually in a small tree very close by and I managed a quick bit of video at very close range. The bird soon disappeared and I waited patiently for another view. During this time I was joined by another birder and a short while later it re-appeared in the same tree before flying out to the gorse bushes opposite us where it would show from time to time. After a while I headed back to Penberth but en route I got a text that a hoopoe had been seen the previous day at Polgigga, which was just a few minutes further on from Penberth. I headed over there where I happened to bump into a local birder whose patch Polgigga was and who'd found the bird the day before. Apparently it had been seen in the lane that heads out to the moor but was rather elusive. When we got to the appropriate spot there turned out to be several other birders about and the hoopoe was nowhere to be seen so I turned around and headed back to the cottage.

Woodchat Shrike. These shots were by far the best of the bunch. They are videograbs of a few seconds worth of footage when the bird was very close in the tree.

Apart from that one twitch, there was nothing else of particular note around in the area whilst we were there. The hoopoe was seen once more a few days later and I made another attempt on it without any joy. A great white egret was seen a couple of times at Marazion Marsh though I didn't bother trying for it. With nothing specific to go for, I would get up early and get in a couple of hours birding in the morning before we headed out for the day. I went to Porthgwarra one morning to look around and I managed a short time sea-watching from the famous Gwennap Head. I also did a couple of walks along the coast from Penberth to see what was about. On a typical coastal walk one would see linnets, dunnocks and chaffinches and corvids as the stock birds. Where it was moorland terrain then wheatears and meadow pipits were to be encountered. Interestingly I only once saw a stonechat the whole time I was there which was very unusual.

There were lots of linnets about on the moorland

Even the meadow pipits look rather colourful at this time of year

Buzzards were to be seen everywhere, here's one at Porthgwarra

During the day I'd always have my bins with me and it was a question of taking advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves. When we went to St. Ives for the day, my VLW and the girls wanted to go shopping so I took L around to the island where there was a rather stiff breeze blowing towards the shore. We found a sheltered spot and L soon fell asleep whilst I passed a very pleasant hour and a half sea-watching. I only had my bins but the birds were coming in rather close and several times there was a flock of around fifty manx shearwaters close to where I was sitting, diving away for fish. Another time my eldest daughter wanted to buy something that she'd seen from a shop in Marazion so I dropped her off and found somewhere to park overlooking the bay. During the twenty minutes we were waiting I managed to find a great northern diver which was fishing quite close in to the shore. Yet another time my VLW and the girls wanted to shop in Penzance so I said I'd take L to look at the ships in the harbour. As it was high tide we first of all stopped off by Jubilee Pool where purple sandpipers were known to roost at high tide. Sure enough there they were, just a few yards away on the rocks. By leaning over the sea wall I managed to find quite a few more which were actually roosting in the cracks in the wall and I reckoned that there were at least 35 in total together with a similar number of turnstones.

The turnstones and purple sandpipers roosting on the rocks

Purple Sandpiper. This shot was digiscoped but because of the angle involved I had to hold the scope in my hand rather than on the tripod.

This colourful littoralis rock pipit on Portheras Beach came close enough for me to take a reasonable shot with my P&S camera.

This obliging chiffchaff at Polgigga was very docile - perhaps it had just flown in and was exhausted

On a walk along the coast from Penberth to Porthcurno I heard a familiar call and looked round to find a chough flying close to us along the cliff. A short while later a pair of them appeared again though they moved on before I could get a record shot. On a walk down to Nanjizal beach we got great views of a female merlin which flew up from the gorse and headed up the valley. Whilst hanging around on Marazion beach a flock of waders flew in which turned out to consist of dunlin, sanderling and some ringed plover. A pair of ravens were frequently to be seen flying overhead in Penberth Valley. Chiffchaffs, willow warblers and blackcaps were the only warblers that had arrived yet but were to be found in reasonable numbers in the appropriate locations. All in all I managed to see some nice birds whilst doing family stuff.

I managed to see all the sea birds that I might expect at this time of year as well as a nice mixture of other birds as year ticks. The woodchat shrike was the icing on the cake and was in fact a lifer for me. It was a shame that no great rarities, for which this area is famous, turned up whilst I was there but I noticed a Savi's warbler appeared at Marazion Marsh the day after we returned!

National Year List 2010
130 fulmar 09/04/2010 Tintagel, Cornwall
131 razorbill 09/04/2010 Tintagel, Cornwall

132 tawny owl 10/04/2010 St. Buryan, Cornwall

133 WOODCHAT SHRIKE 10/04/2010 Church Cove, Cornwall (LIFER)

134 gannet 10/04/2010 Pendeen, Cornwall

135 wheatear 10/04/2010 Pendeen, Cornwall

136 manx sherewater 10/04/2010 Porthgwarra, Cornwall
137 chough 11/04/2010 Porthcurno, Cornwall
138 purple sandpiper 12/04/2010 Penzance, Cornwall
139 kittiwake 13/04/2010 St. Ives, Cornwall
140 guillemot 13/04/2010 St. Ives, Cornwall

141 shag 14/04/2010 Porthgwarra, Cornwall

142 merlin 14/04/2010 Nanjizal, Cornwall
143 great northern diver 15/04/2010 Marazion, Cornwall
144 sanderling 15/04/2010 Marazion, Cornwall

Friday, 9 April 2010

Cranes Photo

The two Farmoor cranes (c) Chris Woodrow

I managed to get in touch with the chap who found the cranes: Chris Woodrow, who kindly let me use his excellent photo which I thought I would share on this blog.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Cranes over Farmoor

I had been contemplating a last blog entry to tidy up loose ends before I head off on holiday but was worried that there wasn't really much to report. I'd been up to Linkey Down a couple of times for the ring ouzels but hadn't found any though they have been seen on other days when I wasn't free to get down there. I'd managed at least to hear the Burgess Field Cetti's warbler and finally caught up with willow warbler there as well. As usual most of my time's been spent on Port Meadow catching up with the various migrants as they pass through. Today I'd decided to take the day off to help with the packing for the holiday and was somewhat gripped off to hear about a black-winged stilt at Rainham Marshes which I'd have probably gone for had I been free. Instead I nobly decided to take some junk to the dump as my VLW had been nagging me about it for ages. As I was (roughly) in the vicinity I thought it would be rude not to go on to Farmoor afterwards as I wanted to see if I could photograph some white wagtails there.

It was a gorgeous spring day, sunny with just a gentle breeze as I arrived at Farmoor. In the car park I met Brian Shaw (of Withymead NR) who told me that there were at least a couple of white wagtails and some yellows along the causeway. The fly hatch was in full swing with insects buzzing around everywhere, perfect for wagtails I presumed. The black-headed gull passage was in full flow with at least a thousand birds on the two reservoirs. I found a couple of yellow wagtails on the settling beds by the water treatment works and did a bit of videoing. More and more I turn to the videograb option for my digiscoping photos unless the bird is really close and in good light: the chances of something coming out are so much better when one is effectively taking multiple frames per second and the video autofocus make it more likely that at least some of them will be in focus. The only real downside is the photo size is only 640 x 480 pixels so its of record shot quality only.

I had just started off along the causeway when I met a fellow birder (whom I didn't recognise) coming in the opposite direction. He asked me if I knew what a couple of birds were which by now were circling high up beyond the south east corner of Farmoor II which he was thinking might be cranes. I had a look and they did indeed look like cranes. I managed to get them in my scope and could clearly identify them as cranes and I could even see the white stripes down their necks. They were circling higher and higher in a thermal together with a couple of buzzards. I wasted no time in calling the appropriate people on the off-chance that they might be able to connect. Nic Hallam managed to get there in a few minutes but not until after they flew off strongly in an easterly direction (not westerly as I erroneously reported on Bird Guides in my excitement!) so he just missed them. The chap who'd found them said that they'd flown from the north west corner right over the reservoir and he'd even got a pretty good photo which he showed me though unfortunately he left before I was able to ask him for a copy.

Once all that excitement was over I continued down the causeway where I found a couple of white wagtails which I spent some time photographing. I tried both video and stills though the latter all came out out of focus so once again it was the videograb which saved the day. As I worked my way back along the causeway more wagtails had flown in so there were at least five whites in one group along the causeway and at the east end near the water treatment works were seven or more yellows sitting in a row.

A videograb of a yellow wagtail on the settling beds

A white wagtail along the causeway though somewhat distorted by the heat haze

So a rather exciting day in the end with a county lifer for me. Cranes are seen in the county from time to time so they're not that rare though I was extremely lucky to have connected with these birds in the way that I did: once again I'd managed to be at Farmoor at just the right time. A few more ticks for the year lists though of course I've already got crane on my national year list after my recent Norfolk trip.

Oxon Year List 2010

109 house martin 01/04/2010 Port Meadow
110 green sandpiper 01/04/2010 Port Meadow
111 red-legged partridge 01/04/2010 Linky Down
112 cetti's warbler 02/04/2010 Burgess Field
113 willow warbler 06/04/2010 Burgess Field
114 COMMON CRANE 08/04/2010 Farmoor

National Year List 2010

126 house martin 01/04/2010 Port Meadow
127 green sandpiper 01/04/2010 Port Meadow
128 cetti's warbler 02/04/2010 Burgess Field
129 willow warbler 06/04/2010 Burgess Field

Off to Cornwall tomorrow and I'm really hoping that the woodchat shrike at Church Cove manages to stay another couple of days for me. I'm also rather hoping I don't miss anything too good back here in the county: I remember last year coming back to the news that a Bonaparte's gull had been seen at Farmoor though fortunately it ended up staying long enough for me to see it.