Thursday, 21 July 2011

Rosefinch Wrangling

As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm not much of a twitcher. What's more when I do consider making a sortee it is generally rather restricted in a number of ways:
  • I don't generally go at weekends due to family commitments but as I work for myself I can give myself time off during the week
  • I don't like travelling too far - for one thing any dip would be too painful and my VLW already thinks I'm mad to travel any distance for what's "just a bird" so I limit myself in general to two hours in the car (though exceptions have been made)
  • I prefer the bird to have been around for some time so that it's well established and predictable. This way I can read up on where it's been seen and I know that there's a good chance of it still being there so there's less chance of a dip.
When I do go, I like to plan my trips in advance, plotting out the route and writing it down on a scrap of paper- I don't have Sat Nav or even want it and in fact enjoy learning different routes to places. As I'm usually on my own I like to look on Google Streetview to help with navigation and it's amazing how this makes key parts of the route look familiar. I also use Streetview to suss out where I can park when I get there so all in all it's a well-planned operation.

The common rosefinch at Melbourn, near Cambridge fulfilled all the "can I twitch it" criteria having been around for a good week now. Apparently it was discovered when a motorist pulled over to let a cyclist go by on the single track road and heard it singing through his open car window so who knows how long it had been there. I'd had my eye on this bird all last week but as I ended up going to Daventry to see a greenshank (grrr!) I felt that I couldn't take a second day off that week. All this meant that I had to wait until Monday of this week before I could justify another trip.

Having done my prep on the bird over the weekend on Monday morning at about 9am I set off and it was a surprisingly short 1 hour and 35 minutes later that I arrived in Fowlmere Road near Cambourn (M40, M25, exit at J21a onto A404, A414, A1(M), A505 and A10 in case you're interested). I figured that after a whole week of the bird being there there wouldn't be vast hoards of twitchers any more (and so it proved) so I parked carefully on the verge rather than the pager-recommended golf car park and as soon as I got out of the car I could hear the rosefinch calling in the distance with it's familiar "Yes, I told you so" call. I know that it's conventionally written as "Pleased to meet you" but to my ear my version suits better. It was calling from the garden of "The Old Barn" house though it was not visible at all. I'd read that it moved around and would periodically appear on a convenient tall tree or even venture into the field opposite but for about half an hour it doggedly called away invisibly from behind the house. A few other people turned up: an old couple who'd been looking further up the road in the wrong place and who didn't know what a rosefinch song sounded like (they hadn't done their homework!) and a local guy who was more into botany and kept on saying things like "is that it in the walnut tree there" or "what about the apple tree" which wasn't very helpful to people who didn't know their trees. Eventually I spotted it singing in the top of what I was told by the tree man was an apple tree. I got it in the scope and everyone had a look but it then scarpered before I was able to take any photos. The bird would stop singing for long periods and I was told that it sang best in the morning and in the evening so as it was now midday it started to take long breaks from its singing.

After a while the others got bored and left but I hung around, wanting to get some photos. Whilst I waited I put the news out on the information services that it was still there. Soon after a twitcher from London turned up and then a local guy who lived close by and who'd seen the bird quite a few times in previous days. No sooner had he got out of his car than he gave a masterclass in "rosefinch wrangling", doing a reasonable whistling impression of both it's call and song. The bird responded quite well to this initially, we got some reasonable views for a short while and I even managed to digiscope some video footage of it.

In this video you can hear the "wrangler" whistle and the bird respond

The bird seemed to get bored with this call and response routine after a while and moved off presumably to feed. It called again occasionally for a while but then tailed off so we all decided to call it a day and I headed back home with another successful sortee notched up.

I came across this lovely photo of the bird taken by Mike Lawrence from his blog "Back in Birdland" which I thought that I'd share with you all (with kind permission I should add). I particularly like the "happy" expression of the bird in this shot - very often rosefinches don't look that attractive in photos .

Melbourn first summer common rosefinch, (c) Mike Lawrence Back in Birdland

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Daventry Debacle

I'm not much of a twitcher. I do go occasionally but I have family commitments and so generally my twitching is restricted to birds that have been around for a long time so that I can go and see them on a day that fits in with my family life and also so there's less of a chance for a dip. I also generally won't travel for more than two hours to see a bird though I will make an exception for something good that has been around for long enough (e.g. the Frampton oriental pratincole). Anyway, my usual twitching rules were rather bent today when Badger (Jason Coppock) sent me a text tempting me to go for the reported greater yellowlegs that had pitched up at Daventry Country Park, well within my two hour travel radius and whilst it was not strictly fulfilling my "settled and well established" criteria the fact that it was being reported regularly throughout the morning meant that it was highly likely it would stay for the rest of the day at least.

Jason was getting together a car-load from Oxon to take a look and I decided to tag along. There was a certain amount of complication involved in the rendez-vous with the others but eventually we were heading off towards Daventry with eagre anticipation. En route I learnt that there was some history with this species with several members of the team having dipped horribly on a couple of occasions in the past so this was very much a revenge twitch for them. For myself on the other hand, I'm such a low lister that it was just another of many birds that I needed and having had the privilege of finding the lesser 'legs on my home patch of Port Meadow last year it would be nice to see it's larger cousin.

We arrived in good time and soon found the gaggle of birders all peering in the distance towards the muddy shoreline where there were a couple of black-tailed godwits and another bird. Someone let me look through his scope and I actually said at the time "that looks like a greenshank" only to get the reply "No that's actually the yellowlegs". Fair enough I thought and set about scoping and then videoing it. It's legs appeared rather muddy but the tops did look yellow-ish though much darker than the lesser from last year. It's amazing how one can convince oneself of something when a crowd of people is telling you it's true and I fully admit to being quite happy watching it and thinking it was the genuine article. After a while it flew and I made sure to take a careful look at the white areas as it flew: white rump and a whacking great white wedge up its back. Now I knew that lesser had a squared off white rump with no wedge but couldn't recall what the situation was for a greater and assumed that this was what it should look like so I'm not claiming any great incite even at this stage. Shortly afterward, LGRE came up to me and asked if I had some video footage of it flying. I looked through my various shots but didn't have anything conclusive. However, I told him what I'd seen and he pointed out that a white wedge meant a greenshank and not a yellowlegs. Finally the veil started to be lifted and I realised that in all probability we were all happily ticking a greenshank, albeit one moulting out of summer plumage with rather bright legs. Lee started to ask the other birders there and word started to spread and then we all started to notice how when it was preening it was showing off a vast expanse of white on its back. Doh! Poor old Garry Bagnell (of Channel 4 documentary fame) turned up having driven all the way from Crawley in Sussex only to be told that it was actually a greenshank that he'd come for! At this point the Oxon bunch decided to leave with yet another dip in the name of this species and now I too had a tale to tell of a nasty dip and a bit of a grudge to carry around!

I know that it obviously looks like a greenshank when you watch the video
but it's not so easy when there's a crowd of people and a whole bunch of
pager messages all telling you it's a greater yellowlegs!

A crappy videograb but you can just make out
the white all the way up the back

In psychology there is a concept of crowd thinking which is a much more primitive basic form of thinking where people go along with the perceived wisdom (or often ignorance) of the crowd. This phenomenon occurs in many situations including lynch mobs and even the stock market so it's well documented. Still it was fascinating and also rather scary to see how easily one could be taken in by it.

Some of the assembled throng

The moral of the story is of course always to check for yourself when you go to a twitch and not to be taken in by what the perceived wisdom is. Still it's an occupational hazard with twitching and this has happened many times in the past and will no doubt happen again many times in the future. At least I now have the knowledge of the rump pattern for great yellowlegs indelibly etched into my memory for the rest of my life!

Monday, 11 July 2011

Cornwall in July

I was due to go back down to Cornwall again for a week: there was still much to do and my sister and a friend were coming down and a few things needed to be done to make things habitable for them. As always, I'd been following things down in Cornwall and knew that even down there it was remarkably quiet with nothing of note being seen at all. Given this lack of anything interesting to chase I planned to do some more work on my fledgling Cornish list and also with my new-found interest in butterflies I thought that I would take this opportunity to chase down some of the local specialities. On top of all this, July marked the start of when things begin to get interesting on the sea-watching front so I would keep a weather-eye on the charts and if there was a good wind I was planning to get in a spot of sea-watching.

Sunday 3rd July
With nothing of particular note to stop in on on the way down to Cornwall I thought that I would take a look at some Cornish sites along the north coast en route. The plan was to work on the Cornish list and also to take a look at some sites that I'd not yet visited. I'd been making some enquiries (thanks are due to John Swann and Colin Selway for their help with this) and had been given a few tips on where to visit for various species.

My first port of call was Walmsley Sanctuary near Wadebridge where the target bird was red-legged partridge. As I walked across the field towards the hide a flock of 5 stock doves flew up which was an unexpected bonus county tick. It turned out that they bred near there and there were even a couple of youngster sitting on some poles in front of the tower hide. All was quiet on the pools themselves with a couple of herons, a lone wigeon and a few miscellaneous ducks about. In the hide I met a nice couple from Heligan whom I'd met before at Marazion. They'd heard some partridges near the other hide so I went to take a quick look though all I could find in that area were a couple of soaring buzzards. I wandered back, scouring the fields and thought that I heard a distant calling bird but couldn't pin it down.

One of the young stock doves near the hide

Whilst there I thought that I would nip over to the other side of the road to take a look at Dinham Flats as part of my getting to know new Cornish sites. After walking through a couple of fields I found the hide though with the tide right out there was not much to see apart from a single little egret, a few shelduck and some black-headed gulls. As I returned to the car however I heard a male partridge singing from just the other side of the hedge from me. I crept forward to take a look but he heard me and I heard the whirr of wings as he sped off so I ran forward and managed to see him flying across the field. Result!

A shelduck on Dinham Flats

Next stop was Trevose Head to look for Corn Bunting. This turned out to be fairly straight-forward and I had no sooner turned off for the Head when there one was on the hedge right by the road though it flew off before I could take a photo. Despite already having achieved my goal I decided to go and take a look around anyway. It was all rather scenic though not as rugged and beautiful as the Penwith peninsula (to my eyes at least). I had a quick wander around and found a couple more corn buntings on the tamarisk hedging that lined the road. One male was singing by the road side so I got out and did some digiscoping. Job done, next stop Penhale Dunes.

Unfortunately this corn bunting remained partially
obscured by the tamarisk the whole time

I'm a sucker for a lighthouse photo so here are
a couple from Trevose Head

I wanted to visit Penhale Dunes for the butterflies, in particular the silver-studded blues which are a localised and rare small blue butterfly which you don't get in Oxon (that I know of). I'd done some research and managed to find the appropriate layby by the footpath and set off across the dunes. One aspect of nature that I particularly enjoy is exploring different types of habitat so it was nice to spend some time in amongst the dunes. At first I didn't spot very much but as I ventured further I saw the odd dark-green fritillary zip by though in the wind they weren't hanging around at all. After a while I spotted what looked like a dried up pond area which was sheltered by dunes on three sides which looked rather promising so I went over to take a look. Sure enough it was full of silver-studded blues as well as up to three dark-green fritillaries. I spent some time trying to take photos but many of the blues were past their best by now and they wouldn't easily let me get very close so I never got the classic closed-wing shot of them showing off their silver studs. Still it was great to see them all and I walked back to the car a happy bunny.

A couple of silver-studded blue shots

A very heavily-cropped record shot of a dark-green fritillary,
the only shot I was able to get though at least you can see the
dark green wash on the lower underwing which gives it its name.

It was getting rather late in the day now so I headed on down towards Penzance, just nipping in briefly to the Hayle estuary where it was high tide and a few waders were waiting it out in Ryan's Field. On to Pendeen to open up the house and to have something to eat. It had been a long but very enjoyable trip down.

Monday 4th July
I decided to start off my day with a sea-watching session at Pendeen though the wind wasn't particularly strong. There was a steady stream of manx shearwaters going by and I counted a total of 520 between 07:00 to 08:45 though there was little else of note. I had lots of work to do in the cottage so much of the day was taken up with that though by early afternoon I needed a break and fancied a wander around the local area to check out the butterflies. I gave John Swann a call and he helpfully came down to show me where to find silver-studded blues in the area though we only managed to turn up three of them with a small copper as a bonus. He also said that grayling were to be found in the area which, as a coastal butterfly, was a species I was keen to catch up with though they normally don't come out for another couple of weeks and we didn't manage to see any.

I found this lovely garden tiger month around the
back of the cottage though unfortunately it had been injured
and wasn't going to last long

Tuesday 5th July
Again I had lots of work to do and with no wind to speak of (it was actually quite a nice day) there was no point in any early morning sea-watching. By late afternoon I'd had enough of work and decided to take a jaunt over to the Lizard peninsula to see if I could find a hobby at the pool at Croft Pascoe. This turned out to be a shallow pool on the downs near Goonhilly which was known to be a good dragonfly spot. Indeed there were several of these beasts quartering over the water though I don't really know my dragonflies yet so couldn't tell you what they were.

Croft Pascoe Pool was full of dragonflies but unfortunately no hobbies

There were unfortunately no hobbies to be seen but I noticed a small forest area nearby and decided to pop in to take a look. This turned out to be a great piece of habitat with a mostly coniferous wood and an area of more sparsely separated trees with heather in between that looked great for species like nightjar, woodlark and tree pipit though unfortunately there wasn't very much of this area so it was probably too small. The wood itself though was alive with birds and simply by standing still and watching and listening it was possible to spot all sorts of species. There was a delightful family of young chiffchaffs working there way about the place as well as loads of blue and great tits. I heard a familiar call and soon managed to spot a male siskin on top of a neighbouring tree - this was another species that I needed for the Cornish list. By watching the canopy carefully I soon spotted a coal tit working its way through the trees which was again another Cornish tick - in my defence there aren't many suitable coal tit areas on the Penwith peninsula itself. Finally a secretive spotted flycatcher was the icing on the cake and a third Cornish tick. So despite not finding my target hobby I'd managed to come away with a handful of ticks for the list, a most productive trip.

Wednesday 6th July
Today was forecast to be a strong south-westerly wind so clearly a Porthgwarra day. I had some things to do first off and was intending to head down there a bit later once I'd finished my various tasks. By late morning I was ready and set off for PG, en route getting a text through from Bird Guides that there had been 90 Cory's shearwaters through from 8 to 9:30 in the morning. This looked highly encouraging and so it was with some optimism that pulled up at PG, parked in my usual location and headed off to towards the cliffs. Whilst Gwennap Head is the well known sea-watching point in actual fact the locals tend to use Hella Point and so it was to this latter location that I headed. When I arrived there were half a dozen birders including Dave Parker and Martin Elliot and they'd had over 600 Cory's go through earlier though of course it had all died down by now. Soon after my arrival most people headed off leaving just myself, Martin and one other birder whom I didn't know. I soon managed to show off my true sea-watching calibre by making the classic school-boy error of calling out a juvenile gannet as a Cory's but once I'd destroyed all my credibility it was quite useful as I could then ask lots of questions of these sea-watching experts with no reputation left to lose! Amongst the things I learnt was that early in the sea-watching season PG is generally better than Pendeen which comes into its own later on in the year. We also discussed spotting Yelkouan shearwaters and the two sub-species of little shearwater, all most educational.

It turned out to be a reasonable little session with a total of five Cory's going through, 6 sooties, 1 arctic skua and 1 storm petrel. Martin had quite a few more stormies than that but it's very difficult to pick up someone else's stormy at any distance. Martin told me that in the past on good Cory days things are often good in the morning, tail off during the day and then pick up again late afternoon so he stayed on after I left mid afternoon. He turned out to be right and a couple of hundred more Cory's went through as well as a single great shearwater later on. I'd thoroughly enjoyed my PG session and by the end I'd managed to get my eye in a bit more, learning the different lines that the difference species went through so I didn't feel like such a novice.

I found this interesting spider down by Pendeen,
I've asked on twitter what species it is and will report
back once I find out

Yet another lighthouse shot, this one is of course Pendeen

Thursday 7th July
I was intending to head back on Friday but with stronger winds forecast for then than Thursday I thought that I would get as much done today as possible to leave me with some free time for a final session on the Friday. I did have to make a run to the dump at St. Erth and so of course it would have been rude of me not to pop in to the Hayle estuary for a quick look. I am finding that I am increasingly drawn to this spot, I think that it's because it offers waders and gulls which is of course what I specialise in on my home patch of Port Meadow. I managed to catch it just past high tide so there was plenty of water and plenty of birds as well. Across on the far side were a number of gulls including four Mediterranean gulls (2 summer plumaged adults and 2 1st summers). On the wader front there was a greenshank, 4 black-tailed godwits, numerous curlew and in Ryan's Field there were a couple of common sandpipers.

Back at Pendeen I went for a mid-afternoon walk around the local area. I nearly managed to lose my camera as it fell out of my camera pouch though fortunately I knew that I must have dropped it in the last 40 yards and so by tracking back and forth across the cliffs I was able to find it. I managed to find some more silver-studded blues and also found a grayling, which I was most pleased about. I worked late into the evening to get as much as possible done to free up time for my final day tomorrow.

A well-camouflaged grayling

Friday 8th July
I was up very early cleaning the cottage for the forthcoming guests and packing things in the car. I had been vaguely contemplating going back home "via" Pembrokeshire for the very smart looking lesser grey shrike there but I finally decided that this was just too circuitous a route even for me so with a good south-westerly wind forecast I decided that another PG sea-watching session was what was required and so at around 7:30 am I was back at Hella Point though when I arrived the wind was much more subdued than forecast and there was only one other person (a non-local) there. Gradually throughout the morning though more and more people arrived (Dave Parker was the only one I knew) so that by the time I left at around 10:30 there were about a dozen people there.

Things looked quite promising initially with a couple of stormies and a sooty almost as soon as I sat down but it quickly tailed off so it was very quiet with just the odd stormy for our collective efforts. After a while it started to get a little better and my final tally was 3 stormies, 6 sooties, 1 arctic skua, 1 pom and 1 bonxie. After I left it all seemed to kick off though and as well as a good number of Cory's going through at some time in the early afternoon a Wilson's petrel went through and even lingered for five minutes around the Runnel Stone. Most gripping!

I went home to pack and then headed for home, stopping off for a final look in at Hayle as I was going past. There it was similar to my previous visit with three Mediterranean gulls (1 s/p adult and 2 1st/s) and the usual waders.

Hayle common sandpiper at Ryan's Field

It had been another most enjoyable visit down to my favourite part of the country. Given that it was July I'd not been expecting much and so to get a total of seven county ticks was quite a good effort. In addition it had been great to catch up with some local butterfly specialities. My sea-watching sessions had only whetted my appetite further and I was already looking forward to my next visit down there.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Surviving June

With the June doldrums once more upon us I have been casting around for something to do. I did almost go on a couple of twitches: after some prompting by Badger, the Suffolk roller at the start of the month had me ready to head off the next day on news but it turned out to be a one day wonder so instead I earned some brownie points by going off on a furniture hunting expedition with my VLW. The other almost-twitch was the Hertfordshire night heron that turned up at Stocker's lake. Once again I was ready to head off the next day on news but the bird did a runner.

Aborted twitches aside, I was recently inspired by one of my favourite blogs "Wild Wings and Wanderings" by Karen Woolley. This year she has been posting much more on butterflies and plants (particularly orchids) and one particular post on black hairstreaks caught my eye. This is a rather rare butterfly but it turns out that one of the top spots to see it is at Whitecross Green wood in Oxon where she and her chums managed to catch up with it. It was getting rather late for them as due to the warm spring they were several weeks earlier than usual. Nevertheless I thought that I would go and take a look and this has rather lead me down the slippery butterfly spotting slope. I don't know what the butterfly equivalent of birder is, 'flyer perhaps? I'd had a brief interest in butterflies as a boy and I knew the common species already so I thought that I'd give it a go. The trouble is of course that there aren't that many species of butterfly about and I don't think that there is the same degree of vagrant butterfly appearance as there is for birds so the scope for twitching them is limited but I wanted at least to catch up with some of the more interesting species that occur in and around Oxfordshire. Importantly, butterflies are abundant at a time when birds are scarce so it could work quite well. I know that this is a slippery slope and before you know it I'll be mothing with the best of them but it will do me for now. So this posting is mostly about the various local butterfly trips that I've made in June.

Whitecross Green Wood
My first trip was to Whitecross Green wood to chase after black hairstreaks. I'd not been to this spot before which consisted of lovely mixed woodland with a criss-crossing grid of grass rides. The grass was kept long in the rides apart from a couple of tracks and it was ideal for butterflies and orchids. On the bird front there were plenty of the usual warblers about as well as lots of mixed tit flocks working their way through the trees. As mentioned above the black hairstreaks were very early this year and although I found the hot-spot for them from an internet description despite extensive searching there were none to be seen and I'm guessing that they are now all finished for the year. I did see a brief fly-by white admiral as well the usual grassland common stuff. I also met a lady 'flyer from Yorkshire who had come down to Collard Hill in Somerset for the large blues and who was heading back via this site to look for the hairstreaks. We got talking and it turns out that she does butterflies in the summer and birds in the winter with the butterflies taking priority.

early purple spotted orchid or so I was told
some random bug

My next trip was to Otmoor which I'd not actually been to at all this year so I decided to combine a butterfly hunting trip with a run. I scoured the bridle way behind the car park field extensively (the "Roman Road") though there was nothing of interest. I think that it's too late for the black hairstreaks there and too early for the browns. Near the new hide a hobby was perched on a fence post giving nice views and there was a lesser whitethroat in the hedge between the first and second screens but the best that I could come up with on the butterfly front was a small blue which showed by the car park field but too briefly for a photo. Still I was pleased to get a sighting of this species which isn't one of the ones that I get on my patch on Burgess Field.

A very tatty painted lady
This comma posed nicely

Wantage Ridgeway
This wasn't actually a butterfly trip but I needed to pick up my younger daughter from her bronze Duke of Edinburgh trip so I decided to go a bit early and have a wander along the ridgeway here which wasn't an area that I'd been to before. I didn't see anything particularly interesting on the butterfly front but I did manage to hear a singing male quail in one of the fields.

An orchid of some sort

Meadow cranesbill I believe

Bernwood Forest
At the weekend a couple of purple emperor butterflies were seen just over the border in Bucks at Bernwood Forest so I thought that I would try there as it was another place that I'd not been to yet. I arrived to find a couple who were just leaving who told me that they'd just seen a couple of purple emperors just around the corner on the main track by a dog poo litter bin. Apparently purple emperors like feeding on dog poo and there was a sample close to the bin which it had been enjoying. When I turned up there were a couple of people there and I was told not to worry as it they were creatures of habit which were bound to turn up again any moment. Of course I knew from twitching experience that often this is the kiss of death and the bird is never seen again and so it proved. I did see one very large butterfly fly high across the path which was probably it but it wasn't really a proper sighting. White admirals and silver-washed fritillaries would occasionally zip by and it was great to see these wonderful species around in such numbers. I went for a wander down to the grass Meadow which was teeming with the grassland species and had a look around before coming back to spend some more time waiting by the poo bin.

The fabulous meadow which was teeming with grassland species

The original finder who'd been waiting patiently all this time had in the mean time found a purple hairstreak which had fallen from an oak tree whilst still hatching and which was now looking a bit damaged as it struggle to inflate its wings. Still it was nice to get such close views of what is normally a tree top species. Eventually I gave up waiting and headed home but I was keen to get back to see if I can catch up with the purple emperors.

the damaged purple hairstreak

I did at least manage to photograph a white admiral this time

Bernwood Revisited
True to my word I was back again at the end of the week, this time a little earlier having learnt from experience that later on in the morning the butterflies tend to skulk in the canopy and are more elusive. I staked out the area by the poo bin and within a few minutes I had my first purple emperor sighting. Unfortunately I fluffed the photo opportunity as my camera was on the wrong setting so I waited around some more and in an hour and a half had a total of three rather brief views. It's amazing how such a large butterfly can disappear once it flies into the foliage of a tree. Whilst waiting there were a number of fly-by silver washed frits and quite a few purple hairstreaks were now on the wing up in the canopy, flashing their purple upper wings occasionally. I was most pleased finally to catch up with the emperors though will most likely be back in order to see if I can actually nail a photo of one.

This silver washed fritillary actually sunbathed
for long enough for me to get some shots off

So my fledgling butterfly spotting habit has got off to a reasonable start. I'd managed to see a few interesting species, had been to a few new locations and had managed to keep myself occupied throughout June so I can't really complain. With the water frustratingly fast drying up on my local patch just as the autumn passage gets underway I may well chase some more butterflies next month unless some decent scarce or rare turns up within striking distance. Next off, I'm off to Cornwall again though it's just as quiet in the south west as in Oxford at present so I'll probably end up chasing some butterflies there as well.