Sunday, 27 June 2010

A June evening on the Downs

It's nearly July and I realise that I'd still not been up to the downs. It's one of my favourite locations and very beautiful, especially at this time of year so I always try to go at least once in the summer. In addition there were a few birds that I needed for the county year list which I'd only really find up there including quail, though by all accounts it was a very poor year for this species. Accordingly I went up there on Saturday in the company of Tom Wickens. There was nothing particularly out of the ordinary that we saw but I just love the atmosphere: it's so quiet that you can hear for miles. We stayed out to watch the full moon rise which was breathtaking. As well as the usual downland birds that one might expect we heard a distant tawny owl calling. As far as the quail were concerned we both heard one calling though very distantly. It's a good thing I'm accepting "heard only" on my lists this year: it makes it all so much easier!

It's always hard to do the Downs justice with a photo: the colours of the fields in the setting sun were wonderful

I always try to photograph the yellow hammers and corn buntings whilst up on the downs. This one posed conveniently close by and "downstream" of the sun...

...whereas this corn bunting was "upstream" and at dusk so I had to go up to ISO 1600.

It was an amazing harvest moon this evening (or can you only really get those at harvest time?)

The moon actually rises really quickly: I took some digiscoped video of it.

A few more ticks to tally up.

Oxon Year List 2010
141 corn bunting 26/06 Churn
142 tawny owl 26/06 Churn
143 quail 26/06 Churn
144 grey partridge 26/06 Churn

National Year List 2010
184 quail 26/06 Churn

Monday, 21 June 2010

Fenland Frolics

God June's been boring! Even though I know to expect it to be a poor month it's been so quiet in Oxon that I've not been out birding anywhere apart from to check what's left of the Port Meadow floods. Actually, one of the things that I enjoy about patch birding is that one can appreciate the subtle changes, the little things that occur on the patch and I have been enjoying seeing the various fledglings flitting their way around Burgess Field and the arrival of the juvenile black-headed gulls on the remains of the floods. Apart from these small nuggets it's been quite frankly dull. I have to confess that I've even been flirting with macro photography in the garden: taking extreme close-ups of various flies and insects and even a snail! I know that some people are really into this sort of thing but If I'm honest it just doesn't really do it for me and I can't actually see myself getting the "Collins Guide to Flies" and trying to identify them all. I was going to publish my efforts on this blog but fortunately you are spared this tedium (for this time at least) as I am able to report on a trip that I made yesterday to Cambridgeshire.

Given how quiet it was I'd been keeping an eye out for something of interest within striking range to go and see: I felt that I'd left a respectable amount of time since my last excursion and I'd been dutifully doing my chores in order to replenish my brownie points so I was now in stand-by mode. There is currently very little about in the country and I'm sure that keen birders are already one step ahead of me in realising that I must have gone for the Berry Fen blue-winged teal and this is indeed what had grabbed my attention. Having originally been found at Fen Drayton it then relocated to Berry Fen where it had been seen every day for the last four days. Whilst this wasn't quite a "long stayer" that I usual look for it, given the circumstances it was good enough. I wasn't able to do my usual "dawn raid" as I now have work commitments first thing in the morning so I set off at around 9am for Cambridgeshire arriving on schedule a bit before 11am at Bluntisham where I parked next to what was obviously another birder's car by the gate. As I got my gear together I could hear a purring turtle dove calling nearby.

It had not been at all clear from the maps or directions exactly where to go: the OS maps don't actually show the fen at all and the pager directions had been less than clear. Accordingly I set off and soon found the fen but on the north side of it where there was no clear spot for scanning the water. I eventually found a vantage point but realised that I was looking into the sun and so it was all rather difficult. I could see no sign of the teal but I did spot the other birder who was on the opposite side of the fen where the viewing must have been easier. As I was having no luck on my side I decided to head over to where he was and some ten minutes later I found the path along the southern side of the reserve which was clearly the proper point from which to view and the light was so much better from this side.

Berry Fen with Bluntisham church in the distance

During this time another couple of birders had arrived so we walked around together scanning as we went. There was a thick block of trees between the Great Ouse and the path from which various warblers, including a cetti's were singing. In the centre of the fen itself the commonest birds were coots though there was at least one pair of little grebes who could be heard whinnying away periodically. There were at least half a dozen pairs of redshank, a pair of oystercatchers, a pair of ringed plover and several lapwings around the place so it was obviously a key habitat for breeding waders. Most of the ducks appeared to be hanging out at the south west corner so we headed in this direction. As we did so distant male marsh harrier was seen quartering over a neighbouring field. Whilst we were waiting for the teal to appear a yellow wagtail and a common tern both flew over. In the far corner the moulting drake garganey was found, doing what garganey's do which is dabbling away just below the water so that their head is usually submerged. This makes them very difficult to photograph and one just has to keep one's finger pressed down on the shutter and hope that you get the shot when it's head pops out for a while.

As you can see I was only partially successful with my garganey shot but given the heat haze and the distance it wasn't too bad

There was also a lone little egret which was more cooperative on the photo front

A couple more birders soon arrived including someone I knew from Oxon (it's a small world). It was actually he who eventually found the blue-winged teal, tucked up asleep in the long grass on the far bank with a bunch of other sleeping ducks: it was only when it put its head up that it was finally spotted. It eventually woke up and started some vigorous preening though it remained hidden in deep grass the whole time so my digiscoping shots were of record shot quality only.

The drake blue-winged teal skulking in the long grass

I also took some video of the bird preening. I've muted the sound as it's just me chatting to a birder about taking videograbs.

Eventually I decided to move on, though on the way back to the car I stopped to look at a seal which was loafing around on the river bank just a few yards from the path and which seemed unperturbed by the people close by.

The loafing seal, a long way from the sea though apparently it's not that uncommon for seals to be seen in the Great Ouse

Naturally enough, I'd endeavoured to find a second bird to see whilst in the area and my attention had been drawn to several recent accounts in the birding blogosphere of trips to see corncrakes where they've been re-introduced at an RSPB reserve in Cambridgeshire. The corncrake scheme has been running for a few years now with successful breeding and they are finding unringed birds on the reserve so either the offspring of the breeding birds are returning the next year or the introduced birds are attracting other birds to the area - probably a bit of both. Accordingly I headed off to this location from Berry Fen though it took longer than anticipated and I didn't arrive there until about 2:30 pm. After some research on the internet and from piecing together what I'd read on other blogs I realised that one actually needed to access the reserve (which I'm not going to name though it's fairly easy to find out for oneself) from the west end along a very long straight track that bisects the reserve. This area is out of bounds during the winter months when the duck and waders are present but it seems to be ok to visit it during the summer months.

The long straight track across the reserve

I didn't have a great deal of experience with corncrakes and in fact had never even heard one. I was expecting that they were like quail in calling mainly at dusk but thought that I'd have a go anyway seeing as I was in the area. However I wasn't holding out much hope as I started walking along the track listening out intently for the tell-tale call. There was long grass on either side with ditches running alongside the track and also ditches periodically running at right angles to the road across the fields. There were quite a few meadow pipits doing their song flight and several sedge warblers and reed buntings around. I also saw a distant male marsh harrier and a single hobby. Interestingly enough there'd been no hobbies at Berry Fen at all which was unusual: you'd have thought that there would have been loads of them there as there'd been so many dragonflies about.

It was quite a hot day and in the mid afternoon sun I was starting to get hot and sweaty and my hay fever was starting to play up a bit. I was just wondering how far along the track I should go when I heard the distinctive "crex crex" call which seemed to be quite close by. I crept closer and as I could hear some rustling noises close by I moved towards the ditch by the road. At that moment a corncrake flew out of the ditch some ten yards away and landed again in the same ditch about thirty yards further down. Result! I'd been hoping just to hear these secretive birds and actually to have seen one was a real bonus - I was most chuffed. There was never going to be a chance for a photo so I turned round and headed back to the car. Most pleased with my fenland outing, I headed back for home arriving less than two hours later.

I think that these might have been the pens which are used to aclimatise the corncrake chicks before they are released. I believe that the chicks themselves are reared at Pensthorpe.

Two year ticks and in fact life ticks for me as well as a most welcome respite from the tedium of the June doldrums. I know that the teal is supposed to have a metal ring on its leg and so is possibly an escapee but I've heard reports of it being suitably wary and I'm generally quite tolerant of this sort of thing on my personal list and don't always rely on a committee of wise birders to tell me what I am allowed to tick. With the corncrake there is the usual question of what to do about release scheme birds. Once again I'm pretty tolerant: after all none of the Oxon birders have problems with ticking red kites which were all re-introduced very successfully in the Chilterns. White-tailed sea eagles are another example of successfully re-introduced birds that everyone happily ticks. One could argue that once a scheme has been running successfully for long enough then the birds become tickable but then you have to ask how long is this and when do you know when you're allowed to tick it? My approach is simple: I'll happily tick a re-introduced bird as long as it's actually in the wild (i.e. not in a pen!) and if I've had to make a bit of an effort to see it! For example, I have a release scheme great bustard on my list which I know doesn't count for much compared to a genuine wild bird but at some point I hope that the Salisbury colony will become established enough for birders in general to be happy to tick them. Anyway, my life list is so low that I can't afford to be too fussy with my ticks!

National Year List 2010
180 BLUE-WINGED TEAL 21/06 Berry Fen, Cambridgeshire (LIFER)
181 corncrake 21/06 Cambridgeshire (LIFER)

Friday, 11 June 2010

Wendover Mandarins

I've already mentioned recently how, as a family man with limited free time for birding, I have to be alert to birding opportunities when they present themselves. Yesterday was a case in point when we were scheduled to head over to Aldbury for a birthday lunch with one of my VLW's brothers. For those who don't know it Aldbury is a rather pretty village with a small pond, some ancient public stocks and a gastro pub (The Greyhound) whose food is ok but not as good as it thinks it is. More importantly it's quite close to the Tring reservoir complex though despite a recent run of good birds there ( two red-footed falcons & a red-rumped swallow) there was nothing unusual there at present. However that morning, the legendary Lee Evans had published a survey report of the various birds in the surrounding area which included a pair of spotted flycatchers in a nearby village called Halton as well as a mandarin duck with six ducklings at a pond called Hampden in Wendover. I therefore suggested to my VLW that we go back a more scenic route that would take in both these locations so after our meal we duly set off with this plan.

We managed to get lost on the short distance from Aldbury to Halton and ended up coming into the village from the opposite direction to our intentions. LGRE has kindly posted the exact house number where the birds were located so we parked up and I got out to have a look around. It's always a bit tricky looking for birds outside someone's house: they tend to get a bit suspicious if you're standing there with a pair of bins and wonder if you're "casing the joint" and I did get a nasty look from one person as he pulled into the drive. I didn't have long with both my VLW and L in the car who weren't going to be prepared to wait around but fortunately I heard and then saw the bird briefly on the roof top of the house. I raced back to get my camera but when I returned it had gone so decided to move on to the next location.

I wasn't able to get a photo this time but it's an excuse to wheel out my digiscoped spotted flycatcher shot from last year

We managed to take the wrong road en route to Hampden pond though I managed to get back on track. The pond itself was a rather small affair surrounded by trees and situated by a nice old church just to the south of Wendover. My VLW and L decided to get out as well for a quick walk around the pond. There were some coots and moorhens and a mongrel mallard all visible from my first vantage point but around the far side I soon came across the female mandarin and her six cute ducklings. As we walked further around I spotted a couple of eclipsed males, initially skulking under the trees as mandarins are inclined to do before my photography attempts moved them further out to the middle of the pond.

The female with her ducklings

The two rather strange looking eclipsed drakes. Both these shots were taken with my point & shoot camera and it was rather gloomy, hence the blurriness of the shots

It's always interesting to discover new nooks and crannies which I'd otherwise never come across when out birding and given the scarcity of spotted flycatchers in Oxon this year I was pleased to catch up with such a beautiful bird. Two more ticks for the national year list to record

National Year List 2010
178 spotted flycatcher 10/06/2010 Halton, Bucks
179 mandarin duck 10/06/2010 Hampden Pond, Wendover, Bucks

Monday, 7 June 2010

Welsh Warblers

It's been deadly quiet in Oxon of late: the floods on my local patch are drying up and nothing unusual has turned up anywhere else in the county that I know of. The only out-of-county trip I'd made had been a couple of weeks ago when en route to deepest darkest Kent for a party and as we were going right past it, I persuaded the family to stop off for half an hour at Walderslade to try for the Iberian chiffchaff. Despite it being described as a very easy twitch, the weather conspired against me with continuous heavy pouring rain and the bird kept silent and well out of sight.

Given all this lack of "hot birding action" I've understandably been getting a bit twitchy again and have accordingly been keeping my birding eye open for suitable opportunities. As regular readers may recall I tend to play a "percentage game" on the twitching front and favour high probability twitches. My ideal twitch involves a bird that looks settled in, is not too far away, (ideally two hours or less though I did make an exception for the pratincole) and preferably has some other interesting bird nearby as a back-up. When the Marmora's warbler turned up in Gwent looking, according to all accounts, very settled and the long staying Iberian chiffchaff at Wentwood Forest (also in Gwent) was also still being reported, this looked like the perfect set-up. The only problem was I had a serious weekend family reli-fest on Saturday (mother-in-law's 90th birthday) for which much preparation was required in the preceding days. In addition after a long day helping out at the party on Saturday, Sunday would be compulsory R&R and apparently travelling two hours to see "some bird" does not count as R&R. This meant that I wasn't going to be free until Monday. Therefore each day I waited to see if it was still being reported and after a wobble one day when it wasn't seen since early afternoon, both birds seemed to be sticking. This enforced delay did give me time to plan my trip which for me can involve a fair amount of work: since I don't have a sat. nav. and am usually on my own I need to know the route off by heart and this one was a bit more fiddly. However, I've discovered that Google Streetview is excellent for ironing out any problem areas so I felt confident I knew where I was going.

Come Monday I was up at 5:15 am and out the door just before six, arriving two hours later at the Marmy warb site without incident. Although the information services were suggesting that one parked at the radio masts and walked down to the lower car park I figured that for a weekday with the bird having been around for several days now it probably wouldn't be that crowded and so I drove down to the lower car park. It turned out that every other birder there (perhaps a dozen in total) had had the same idea but even so I managed to find a space ok. The bird was not showing initially but could occasionally be heard singing in the distance. In the mean time there was a cracking tree pipit singing its heart out just 50 metres from where we were stood. No big deal to many birders but as tripits no longer breed in the county I don't normally get to see them unless I happen to visit somewhere such as the New Forest so it was great to get such good views.

The very obliging tree pipit

Eventually the star of the show decided to put in an appearance and flew down into a clump of heather very close to the car park though unfortunatley hidden from view from where I was standing. It next moved to its favourite clump of holly where it sat quite happily for about 10 minutes singing away occasionally. I took some shots and video though its head was unfortunately obscured by a branch so its not a great photo.

The partially obscured Marmora's warbler, singing away

Video from the same viewpoint

After a while it flew off again and despite waiting for at least half an hour it didn't show again. Nevertheless there was a distant calling cuckoo, a stonechat and a few whinchats flitting about to watch while we waited. With a forecast of heavy rain for later in the day I decided that rather than wait for better views I would instead head over to Wentwood Forest to try for the Iberian chiffy before the weather deteriorated: I didn't want to be left standing in the rain with no singing Iberian chiffy for a second time! If I got that quickly I could always come back for more Marmy watching.

In travelling to the Wentwood Forest location I decided to opt for the easiest navigational route even though it might be slightly longer and accordingly it was little over half an hour later that I arrived at the Cadira Beeches car park. A couple of other birders had just arrived as I turned up at the clearing which was near the road just as the coniferous trees gave way to some dense scrub. They asked if I knew what the Iberian song was as they weren't sure what to look for and since I'd done some homework on youTube I was able to answer in the affirmative. In many of the accounts that I'd read, the Wentwood bird had been singing almost constantly and had been easy to find but there was no sound of it as we waited. There were plenty of other warblers about with a garden warbler singing away almost constantly as well as a distant willow warbler and a whitethroat. After about quarter of an hour I saw a phyllosc fly into the tree right next to where we were standing. It did seem to have quite a prominent yellow supercilium and lighter underparts than one would expect on a chiffy. I couldn't initially see it's primary projection but it did look a promising candidate. It then flew to a nearby tree and started singing, immediately confirming itself to be the Iberian chiffchaff. It stayed around for a couple of minutes giving excellent close views before flying off again.

The Iberian chiffchaff - a rather blurry videograb

The blurry video: it's never easy digiscoping warblers at the best of times. Unfortunately my camera hasn't captured the song properly but it was text-book stuff.

We waited around for some time, expecting it to return but there was no further sign of it. We did see a large flock of crossbills fly over, jypping away noisily but after a while my fellow birders decided that they were going back to the car park for a coffee and I decided to have a wander around as well. They said that they'd heard a wood warbler from the car park so I went off in search of that and soon found it a few yards down the main track off from the car park. It was flitting through the trees and singing constantly but fortunately very close to the main path so one could get excellent and prolonged views of it. In fact these were probably the best wood warbler views I've had to date. It was great to see it's whole body quiver as it got to the end of each "coin spin". I did wander further along the track and was pretty sure that I heard a redstart singing though wasn't able to see it in the dense scrub. I popped back to the clearing for one final try at the Ibe but it wasn't to be heard at all so after having a snack in the car park I headed back home, arriving back at around 2:30 pm, tired but very pleased with my morning's work.

As well as the two mega warblers, there were four other year ticks to include though the redstart was "heard only". I always like going to different habitats where one can encounter birds which can't be found locally and for this reason I enjoyed the tree pipit and wood warbler as much as I did the Marmy and Ibe.

National Year List 2010
172 tree pipit 07/06/2010 Blorenge, Gwent
173 MARMORA'S WARBLER 07/06/2010 Blorenge, Gwent
174 whinchat 07/06/2010 Blorenge, Gwent
175 IBERIAN CHIFFCHAFF 07/06/2010 Wentwood, Gwent (LIFER)
176 wood warbler 07/06/2010 Wentwood, Gwent

177 common redstart 07/06/2010 Wentwood, Gwent