Monday, 31 December 2012

That Was 2012 That Was

So it's that time again when one looks back at the last birding year, a chance to reflect on what I saw, what I missed etc. The first thing that struck me as I looked back at the entries for the last year is how much I enjoy reading my blog! I'm not boasting about the (frankly dubious) quality of my scribblings, what I mean is that it's a great way for me to reminisce and reading back over past entries brings back to me all the highs and lows of my past birding year. It's also a way for me to see just how I've progressed - I'm still very new to all this having started in the autumn of 2007 and my beginner's enthusiasm is now (I hope) starting to be tempered with a bit more experience and perhaps occasionally some actual ID skill. Personally I very much treat my blog as my own birding diary which a few other people just happen to read as well

My birding tends to follow a pretty regular pattern these days: on a daily basis I'm down on Port Meadow checking out the patch. I'll also nip out locally within the county for good birds, particularly if they're county ticks for me. About once a month on average I'll go for a full-on twitch somewhere and in addition a few times a year I'll go to Cornwall. There have been some good birds in each of these four categories over the last year.

Starting with the Patch, it was a rather strange year with all the rain ensuring that the floods were there all year round (always an important factor for attracting good birds) but somehow that extra special bird just seemed to elude us. Normally we'll get things like a Temminck's Stint or a Spoonbill in May but it It wasn't until November in fact that it finally came up trumps when I found an American Golden Plover. After that it seemed to pick up with four different Caspian Gulls and an Iceland Gull and we ended the year with 134 ticks for the Patch, which is a good year.

The Port Meadow Bird of the Year - American Golden Plover (c) Badger

One of the four different Caspian Gulls on the patch this autumn

The county had a pretty good year with a real purple patch in the spring. January saw some unseasonal birds in the form of a Temminck's Stint and a Grey Phalarope. It all kicked off in the spring with a Black-winged Stilt, a Dotterel, a Pied Flycatcher and four White Storks all appearing in the county. May added another cracking county bird in the form of a Red-rumped Swallow - a bird that I was very pleased to catch up with as they can be so hard to twitch. June added a heard-only Corncrake embedded deep in the fields of Otmoor. After that the county went rather quiet until the last couple of months when the American Golden Plover turned up and then in December the gorgeous drake Falcated Duck at Farmoor.

My personal county Bird of the Year - the Farmoor Red-rumped Swallow (c) Nic Hallam

The Farmoor Falcated Duck

As far as my out of county twitches have been concerned, looking back on the list I managed to see quite a few nice birds this year. In January there was the Hampshire double of the Spanish Sparrow and the Dark-eyed Junco. February saw the fabulous Common Yellowthroat in a very unlikely location in a field in Wales. In May I went to see the Blagdon Lake Squacco Heron and the gorgeous Cream-coloured Courser in Herefordshire. September was a good month with my trip to Norfolk for the Booted and the Barred Warblers, the Rainham Baillon's Crake and the Lodmoor Short-billed Dowitcher. In November I went to the Pits of Desolation in Staffordshire for the White-rumped Sandpiper and December hosted the dash to Queen Mother's Reservoir for the wonderful Buff-bellied Pipit.

The Stunning Common Yellowthroat (c) Richard Stonier

The Blagdon Lake Squacco Heron

Despite several trips to Cornwall, only two of them produced noteworthy birds. In spring there was my trip in May where I found a Night Heron in Kenidjack, as well as seeing a Hoopoe at Brew Pool and the female Blue-winged Teal at Walamsey Sanctuary. In October I had the first of what I hope will be many autumn trips to Cornwall in future for some full-on family-free birding where I was rewarded with the wonderful Paddyfield Warbler and the Olive-backed Pipit on my doorstep.

The Paddyfield Warbler

The Olive-backed Pipit (c) B. Rankine

The only other point of note from reading through the blog was the increasing interest in insects. There were quite a few butterfly trips (such as seeing my first Black Hairstreak) as well as my first tentative steps into the murky world of moths and even a dragonfly hunting trip. I'm sure that I will continue to look at these wonderful creatures in the year ahead.

A Frosted Orange - this year I took my first tentative steps into the murky world of moths

So, do I have any conclusions to draw from this past year or any predictions for the year ahead? Not really, it's been a good year and I hope that next year is more of the same. In terms of my bird of the year it has to be the wonderful Cream-coloured Courser - what a stunner that was!

The Cream-coloured Courser - my Bird of the Year 2012

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Queen Mother's Pipit

I don't generally drop everything and go for an out of county bird. I will do so for something within the county if I need it for my county list but for longer distance stuff I like to prepare, namely read up on site access, check that the bird is being seen regularly etc and generally plan things at least a day ahead. In fact that only times that I can recall going for anything on the spur of the moment are the Cream Coloured Courser (well worth it!) and the Drayton Greater Yellow-legged Greenshank (definitely not worth it!). However on Thursday I did another Code Red Scramble and in my defence I blame Badger and his insidious texts!

It all started innocently enough: I was chatting to Badger yesterday morning about some blog-related stuff and he happened to mention an American Buff-bellied Pipit which had turned up in Berkshire at Queen Mother's Reservoir. I hadn't checked the RBA web-site yet that morning so this was news to me though apparently the bird had only been seen first thing in the morning before going missing. Now most Oxon county birders will have this species safely under the belt thanks to the Farmoor bird in 2007. However, I'd only just started birding then and due to sheer ignorance of just how rare it was, hadn't bothered to go and see it then. This therefore would be a chance to see a species that is normally found in the furthest corners of the country as far away as possible from Oxon so I was definitely interested though as it was not currently on show it was no more than Code Amber at best. I switched on my RBA text alerts for just this bird and soon forgot about it. However at around 1pm a text came through that it had been refound. This was shortly followed by another saying that it was showing well and then one from Badger saying that the pipit was back. He then sent another pointing out what a relatively short drive it was from Oxford and at this point I started to weaken. I floated the idea with my VLW and there didn't seem to be anything family duties standing in the way until the evening. Suddenly it was Code Red: I got my gear together and at a little after 2pm I was edging the car out of the drive and heading off down the M40. 

As I drove along admiring the frosty scenery and waiting for the car heating to kick in I started to think a bit more about what I was doing. Realistically I wasn't going to get there much before 3pm which would give me about an hour of daylight. I'd looked on the map and the reservoir was huge so unless the bird was actually being watched when I arrived there wouldn't be much time to even walk around it yet alone find the missing pipit. I just had to hope that it was showing constantly and not too far from the car park entrance. Oh well, there was no chance of me seeing it sat at home at my desk so I might as well give it a whirl.

A little before 3pm I arrived and managed to squeeze the Gnome-mobile in the last remaining space outside the sailing club car park. There I found a birder who was just leaving so quizzed him on the state of affairs. It turned out that the pipit was showing well and not too far to walk, in fact one could see the line of birders silhouetted on the skyline. I hurried inside and started yomping towards them. There turned out to be two lines of birders and the bird was clearly going to be located between them on the grassy path itself. In the company of another birder I power-walked onwards get ever closer. Suddenly when we were less than 50 yards away the two lines broke up and people started to walk away. This did not look good - to miss by that distance would really hurt! Fortunately it turned out that the bird had just flown down onto the reservoir shore and was now working its way along the shoreline again. It had a tendency to work its way in one direction consistently, either on the shore or on the grassy path. I wasted no time in setting up my scope and giving it a dammed good grilling.

Not having seen a Buff-bellied Pipit before I'd assumed that it would be fairly distinctive but in the poor light it wasn't so easy to tell apart from a Rock Pipit and I had to look carefully at it. It had a fairly uniform warmish mid-brown back with just very faint darker markings to it as opposed to the usually more grey-toned and darker colour of a typical Rock Pipit. The tertials and coverts had a very strikingly light brown border to them which stood out strongly. The bill was not the particularly strong bill of a Rock Pipit, and was yellow with a darker tip. There was a modest supercilium with no noticeable dark loral stripe and the face had rather an open "pleasing" appearance. The underparts had an off-white basal colour with smudged dark brown streaks and the diagnostic brown wash over the flanks and belly. The legs were dark coloured.

Here are my best videograb efforts - you can just make out
 the salient features in the gloom

 Here are a couple of cracking shots taken by the finder 
Michael Mckee (c) earlier in the day - see his great web-site here
You can easily see all the diagnostic features on these shots

 The light was pretty poor but it was on show constantly and one was able to approach reasonably closely. I busied myself with trying to digiscope video it though the light and the constant movement meant that it was rather hard. Towards the corner it turned round and suddenly was coming back towards us. I abandoned my scope and managed to shoot some footage with my handheld Canon superzoom camera though the hand movement rather spoils it. At that point it flew off and relocated further down the path back towards the car park. 

Some hand-held HD video using the Canon super-zoom. I got youTube 
to stabalise it so it's not quite as shaky as the original.

It was nearly dark by this time and in the sub-zero conditions I was starting to feel very cold so I decided to head back to the car. I came across the bird again half way back though as the light had basically gone I decided not to linger. I headed back to the car and set the co-ordinates for home. Interestingly the iPhone Sat Nat app decided to take me back via the "short-cut" along the A4 and A355 rather than along the M25. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake and with the traffic it took a lot longer to get back though all the same I was easily back in time for my family duties. It had been an exciting Code Red Scramble and I once more basked in the warm internal glow of a successful outing.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

En Cherchant le Canard

There must be some conservation law regarding the amenablity of birder's wives to the sudden disappearance of their spouses due to the Call of the Mega. I postulate this as a result of reading Ewan Urquhart's latest (and excellent as always) Black Audi Birding update during which he describes his wife's remarkable lack of concern as he "ducked out" of a trip to visit friends in London leaving him free to spend the day en cherchant le canard. The sum total of amenability must be conserved so the same story from my perspective couldn't have been more different...

I was just getting ready to go out for a quick morning run around the patch. We'd had the usual Sunday morning lie-in with a cup of tea whilst our six-year old chatted away to us. Later on we had my VLW's niece and her boyfriend coming over for Sunday lunch so there was just time for me to nip out to check the patch before having to help with peeling some potatoes. It was at that point that Farmoor stalwart Dai John (see his blog here) called to report a Falcated Duck at Farmoor. I posted the news on the Oxon Bird Log and then suggested to my VLW that perhaps I could have my run at Farmoor instead of Port Meadow. This suggestion was met with a very frosty response and I decided that perhaps an afternoon visit would be more diplomatic. After a heavy bout of peeling vegetables (to try to restore some brownie points) it was then that my VLW discovered that the oven wasn't working and that the chicken inside the oven was as uncooked now as when it had left the fridge. A bit of fiddling around determined that it was just the fan setting that wouldn't work (the fan element had clearly gone) and that it would still cook on the conventional oven setting. This did mean that the whole meal was delayed by an hour and wouldn't now be ready until 2 pm. With nearly two hours to go until then, I tentatively suggested that I could nip out in the mean time and would still be back in time. Apparently this wasn't a good idea either as our guests would be arriving in about an hour. I mooched around despondently. Badger helpfully texted me to tell me that the duck was still there and showing well. Our guests then called to say that they were running late. I mooched some more. The guests texted to say that they would be even later and in fact conveniently wouldn't now arrive until the chicken was actually going to be ready. I mentally decided that it would not be helpful to work out how many times I could have been to Farmoor and back that morning before our guests did actually finally turn up. In the end they arrived, the chicken was very tasty and enjoyed by all. I quickly did some washing up after the first course and said that I wasn't interested in any dessert thanks and if it was ok I'd be nipping out now to Farmoor before it got dark. With the relief of a successful roast now out of the way my VLW was in a much better mood and agreed to my suggestion.

I hadn't entirely wasted my time that morning: whilst waiting for our guests I'd done some research on the mythical Third Way into Farmoor. There is of course the usual car park entrance and walk along the causeway. For birds in the south west corner of F2 there was the Whitley Farm entrance but legend told of a way into the north west corner of the reservoir from Farmoor village itself. I consulted an ancient oracle (Streetmap) and discovered a footpath to the reservoir from Meadow Close in Farmoor. With there not being much daylight left I wanted to maximise the time that I had with the duck and as this entrance brought you out right at the north west corner of F1 where the duck was located, it was the obvious choice. After fighting my way through the Botley Road traffic I eventually found myself in Farmoor and navigated my way to Meadow Close. I located the footpath without too much difficulty and a short time later I was on the bank in the north west corner of F1 in the company of the Mr. Two Eyes himself (back for seconds), as well as Peter Law, Paul & Vicky Wren and a non-local birder. The Falcated Duck turned out to be a very smart drake bird that was hanging out with a flock of Mallard. I wonder whether it felt that the green-headed Mallards were close enough in appearance to be acceptable company.

A couple of digiscoped shots of the smart Falcated Duck

As well as the star duck there was a Slavonian Grebe in the same corner and a little further around the three Scaup were still about. As it was getting rather dark now I didn't loiter much longer but headed back towards the Third Way footpath. As I approached the north west corner again I noticed that most of the ducks had now come out of the water to hang around on the bank, presumably to roost for the evening. The Falcated Duck was in amongst them but as I approached it shot off back to the safety of the reservoir, long before any of the Mallards had moved. It clearly was rather "wary" of my approach and others have subsequently reported similar behaviour. I soon found my way back to the car and headed off for home and a nice cup of tea.

A bonus Scaup, one of three

There is of course the thorny question of the provenance of the bird. Ducks are always a bit of a minefield when it comes to ascertaining whether they are truly wild or just freshly escaped from a local collection. During the day Roger Wyatt had obtained some photos of it in flight thereby confirming that it was un-ringed and fully winged. We can add wary to this list but then there's the question of carrier species: apparently (according to BirdForum anyway) Wigeon and Teal are better carrier species than Mallard though there has been a large movement of ducks over the last week due to harsh winter conditions on the Continent. So to sum up:
  • Fully winged
  • Un-ringed
  • Wary
  • Consorting with some carrier ducks after a large harsh weather movement from the continent
You're never going to know for certain and my view is that if it ticks all the above boxes then that's about as good as it's going to get. Those who do competitive listing of course have to have some official arbiter of what they're allowed to tick though I personally list only for my own benefit and am unconcerned about official decrees on the provenance of birds. As Ewan points out, we all see it, send in our reports only for a panel of wise men to make a somewhat arbitrary second-hand decision about it which we then moan about. As he concludes, it's up to each of us to make up our own minds. So, am I "having" it? Well, quite frankly it would be rude not to.

Monday, 10 December 2012

More Waxwings

A flock of Waxwings has been frequenting St. Giles churchyard in central Oxford on and off for a while now. They were there for a few days just over a week ago and I managed to see them on several occasions but only managed some very crummy photos taken in the gloomy half light that was prevailing at that time. However after an absence of a week or so they were reported again on Friday morning - what's more it was a gloriously sunny morning. After a hard week wrestling with the twist and turns of the financial markets I felt that I really needed a break. I therefore chose to take some time off to nip down into town on foot to see if I could get some better photos. There I met a couple of photographers (whom I didn't know but who turned out to belong to the Oxford Photographic Society) staking out the berry tree next to the memorial. Incidentally, I'd love to know what species of tree it is if anyone knows (see the photos below). I joined them and a short while later the Waxwings flew back in and almost immediately descended on the tree to indulge in a berry feeding frenzy for several minutes before someone spooked them all back up into their tree. They didn't really hang around after that though I did spot the odd one or two in the churchyard itself for a while. Still I had managed to take a few photos in actual sunlight (a first for Waxwing photos for me!). I just can't get enough of these gorgeous birds.

Not SLR  quality but they came out well enough using my Canon SX 30is super-zoom.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Marston Waxwings!

My VLW and our two daughters had decided to go to London today, leaving me at home with Luke our six year old son. I wasn't intending to go out birding with him and had even been left a shopping list to keep me occupied. However when a Badger Bird Text came through saying that Jon Uren had found a flock of Waxwing just up the road in Marsh Lane, Marston I thought that it would be rude of me not to pop in - after all it was practically on the way to Summertown for the shopping anyway. Therefore, despite the rain, Luke and I got the shopping bags together and then bundled in the car and sped off. I wasn't sure where exactly to go and there was no sign of anything along the road itself so I turned into the sports stadium car park where low and behold there were Badger & Peter Law staring at a hedge - the Wickster and the Paranoid Birder soon turned up as well. It turned out that a flock of nearly 30 of the little beauties were hanging out in the area and making periodic sorties to the hedge where they'd gorge themselves on Hawthorn berries before retreating back to the higher branches of the trees. I spent some time watching and trying to photograph them in the gloom and rain whilst Luke amused himself splashing in puddles and generally getting himself wetter than was prudent. After a while the birds seemed to have moved on and we needed to go and shop anyway so we left. Given that Luke was rather soaked and I'd happened to have forgotten the shopping list anyway we went home first before heading off for the shopping. Can't complain though - one can never have enough of Waxwings.

The flock loitering with intent in the upper branches... 
...keeping look out...

 ...making a raid on the lower branches
A Masked Berry Bandit

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Twitching at the Pits of Desolation

I've not been birding anywhere other than my patch for about a month now. Since I came back from Cornwall, it's been strictly Port Meadow for all my outings. Not that this has been too burdensome of course, what with the American Golden Plover and also a rather nice Caspian Gull to keep me occupied. However, even Port Meadow becomes a bit "samey" after a while and I was starting to feel the twitch itch again. Now, there'd not been much about for me to go after of late so when a White-rumped Sandpiper turned up only an hour away in Staffordshire a couple of days ago it soon caught my attention. It's initial status was "reported" on Tuesday evening but it was then seen all day on Wednesday. I would have gone then but my VLW had gone to London for the day so I was stuck holding the family fort. So on Thursday morning I was on standby with only thick fog in the Midlands preventing me from setting off "on-spec" straight away. Given the foggy conditions I decided instead to wait for news since if it was still around it should probably be twitchable for the rest of the day. A minor work emergency kept me occupied for a while until at around 10:30 the requisite RBA text came through and I fired up the Gnome-mobile and headed up the M40. Thanks to my trusty free iPhone sat nav app ("Navfree GPS" - I can thoroughly recommend it) a little over an hour later I arrived at Middleton Lakes RSPB car park with a "still present" text en route to encourage me.

It was still foggy and rather chilly when I arrived so I put on all my gear including waterproof trousers for extra warmth and two fleeces under my thick winter coat. I decided on my walking boots rather than the RBA-recommended wellies as I find the latter make my feet too cold after a while. After a twenty minute yomp through what were at times indeed extremely muddy conditions I arrived at the correct pit having warmed up nicely from my walk. A handful of birders were gathered at the scene where it turned out that the bird had last been seen about half an hour ago but it had appeared to have gone behind a rather large island on the far side of the pit and it had not been seen since. I settled down to wait and surveyed the scene. It was not the most attractive of places: the complex consisted of a series of old gravel pits now flooded with water though for some reason the bird had today chosen the one pit which was being actively excavated and two huge mechanical diggers kept up a constant racket in the background. This particular pit was made up of gravel and mud with nothing much growing on any of the islands within it. What with the thick fog, the infernal racket of the diggers and desolate landscape it had rather an air of despair about it - very Mordor!

The Pit of Desolation - the bird was supposedly behind the big
island at the back close to the two huge diggers  

It was at this point that I realised that I'd left my packed lunch back in the car. Now I have the kind of metabolism where I like to eat regularly, I don't need to eat very much at a time but it needs to be regular or I can often start to feel rather light-headed. I wondered how long I could last before I would have to slog back to the car to go and fetch my food and hoped that the bird would show fairly soon. To add to my growing feeling of gloom the bird appeared to have disappeared. Half an hour passed, then one hour, then an hour and a half and there'd been not a sniff of it - it was getting close to my usual two hour hanging around tolerance limit. A couple of Green Sandpiper picked their way around the islands, a Kingfisher sped by and a Redpoll flew over calling but there was little else. Periodically I would try viewing from a different angle, hoping that I might be able to spot the bird that way but still no luck. It crossed my mind more than once that if the bird had moved on to another pit then there wouldn't be much chance of finding it. This all reminded me of a twitch to Deddington in Cambridgeshire a few years ago for a Buff-breasted Sandpiper that was last seen 10 minutes before I arrived and never showed again. It was a similar gravel pit location with a similar progressive realisation that I was going to dip horribly. After a while a few of us wandered the few yards over to the North Pit where it had been all day yesterday and had a scan around. Here the numerous islands were much lower and it was generally easier to see what was about: three Redshank were the highlight but there was no sign of any Nearctic vagrants.

It was at this point that the word went up that someone had the Sandpiper! We hurried back to the original pit discover that far from being behind the far island, it had appeared on one of three tiny islets no more than a few yards across right at the front in the left-hand corner. It seemed quite happy there and spent some time working its way around the islets whilst we all watched and attempted to take photos in the gloom. I quickly decided that video was going to be the best approach in the conditions and managed some reasonable footage given the circumstances. The bird had it's trade-mark long primary projection with the feathers crossing at the end behind it, pale-fringed dark brownish coverts and flight feathers but a rather plain dark grey mantle, nape and head. The supercilium was rather muted with a reasonably slim slightly down-curved bill and white marks around the base of the bill (reminiscent of a ruff perhaps). The breast was rather grubbily streaked though the cut-off line was fairly clean giving way to clean white underparts. When it flew from one islet to the next one could see it's lovely white rump. All in all a gorgeous bird and worth hanging around in the freezing fog for.
A digiscoped videograb of the White-rumped Sandpiper

...and some video footage. You can hear the constant racket of the diggers.

I spent some time enjoying the bird as it worked its way around the islets about fifty yards from us. After a while people gradually started to drift away and I too eventually slogged my way back through the mud to the car where I wolfed down my lunch before firing up the Gnome-mobile and setting the co-ordinates for home, arriving back just as it was starting to get dark. It would have been a very gloomy return journey had the bird not been seen but thankfully I was able to bask in the warm golden glow of a successful twitch, having snatched success from the jaws of horrible dippage at the Pits of Desolation.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

A Brief History of Rare Plovers

More Accurately: "More Than You Could Possibly Want To Know About Rare Plovers on Port Meadow"

It's not every day that one gets to find a nice bit of rare on one's own patch. After what has been a very lean year on my patch at Port Meadow I finally managed to get some reward for my daily visits in the form of a juvenile American Golden Plover. What's more, it's a bird that has "history" as far as the Meadow is concerned so I thought that I'd fill readers in on all the background information. Most county birders will already know most of this so it's more for the benefit of my off-county readers that I write all this.

It all started back in the autumn of 2008. I'd only taken up birding again (after giving up as a teenager) the previous year and was still quite frankly a bit crap at it ("what's changed?" I hear you ask). If I recall, I'd been pestering Ian Lewingon (our esteemed County Recorder and bird illustrating and identifying god) about some ID issue (I think that I'd found a Dunlin or something and was trying to string it into a yank peep). We got talking and he'd told me to keep a look out for American Golden Plovers in amongst the large Golden Plover flock that frequented the Meadow at that time of year. I dutifully started checking out the flock on subsequent visits though to be honest I had no idea what I was looking for. A couple of days later I rang Ian up to say that I'd seen a rather funny looking Golden Plover and did he want to go and check it out. He dutifully went down to the Meadow and then about an hour later I got a call from him to say that he'd found the bird and it was indeed an AGP. He then went on to describe the bird which was very dark and smaller than the surrounding European GP. At this point I confessed that the bird I'd spotted actually had been a rather pale bird so I had in fact just randomly latched onto a rather pale bog-standard plover and had dragged Ian down on what should have been a wild goose chase. The fact that he'd managed by chance to find the real deal whilst there remains for me one of the all time great birding coincidences that will never cease to amaze me. This was after all a county first so it's not as if they were that common here or anything. Anyway, I hot-footed it down to the Meadow (only a couple of minutes bike ride away) and Ian eventually got me on to the bird which I enjoyed in the company of a half dozen or so county birders who were also there. The flock was incredibly flighty and every few minutes they would go up, wheel around for a while before settling again. With each "reshuffle" there was a frantic period of trying to find the bird before they all took off again. However, after yet another reshuffle, when the birds finally settled the AGP could not be found and we realised that it must have been one of the few birds that peeled off from the flock during the wheeling. Over the next few weeks there were occasional stringy claims of the bird having been seen again by single observers but there was never anything substantiated nor any photos and to all intents and purposes it had spent only a couple of hours on the Meadow and been seen by a lucky half dozen or so county birders.
It's noticeable how much it stood out from the crowd with it's dark grey colouring 
and smaller size (c) Nic Hallam

Here's a nice digiscoped videograb (c) Ian Lewington

Fast forward to 2012. There'd been no rare plover action on the Meadow (or anywhere else in the county) in the intervening years. I'm still working the Port Meadow patch - Lee Evans recently referred to me as a "Port Meadow obsessive" in one of his blog postings and I guess that I can't really argue with that. Anyway, I'm on one of my runs around the patch: in an effort to keep fit I occasionally go for a run around the patch carrying my bins and a pocket point & shoot camera. It enables me to cover the rest of the patch apart from the floods and it does afford me a reasonable level of exercise. Back to the story: I come across the golden plover flock and dutifully scan through. The last bird in the flock is this little chap:

Here's a shot taken with the pocket P&S camera
- it's the bird on the right

And here's it blown up as much as possible

As you can see it does look rather good! I gave Ian a call and told him that I had a possible American Golden Plover but that I wasn't yet certain about it. He set off in his car and I gave the bird a good grilling. It certainly had the distinctive grey colouring and the primaries did look rather long but what about structurally? The problem was that basically it was the same size and structure as the rest of the birds and that wasn't right for an AGP as I'd learnt from the 2008 bird. Eventually it flew a short distance and I was able to get a view of the underwing - gleaming white and therefore not an AGP but an unusual aberrant grey-toned golden plover. I sent a text to Ian telling him the bad news and he diverted to the local tip to look at gulls instead. I wrote it up on the Port Meadow blog and thought no more about it. A few days later it was still there and I was able to get some video footage of it.

YouTube did some post-processing on this footage in order to brighten up the colours and it's given them a rather surreal look but you can see just how strikingly un-golden this aberrant grey-toned golden plover is. Notice how it's the same size as the surrounding birds though.

A few weeks later I was checking out the evening gull roost on Port Meadow. At this time of year I like to get down for the last hour of light. I first check out the ducks and waders briefly just to see what's about and then concentrate on the gulls until the light fades. I was doing my usual scan through the golden plover flock, partly to see how many dunlin were about as they like to hang out with their big wader friends. Almost immediately I spotted a bird which stood out from the other plovers. It was hanging out just beyond the rest of the flock and at first I thought that I had the aberrant bird from a few weeks ago. However the colouring looked different: it wasn't so clean white underneath and there was something about it that told me that it wasn't the same bird. I quickly set my digiscoping gear up and started filming. Whilst doing so I looked at it more closely and it seemed to tick all the American Golden Plover boxes: very long primary projection - I could seem them crossing beyond the tail; a dark cap and mantle; a strong primary projection and it was structurally smaller and slimmer than the surrounding birds.

I gave Ian a call - I suspect that he has come to dread my "too late to twitch" phone-calls that I make to him. I told him that I had another candidate American Golden Plover but that this one I thought was actually the real deal. I then did something that I've been longing to try for some time in exactly these circumstances: I took a photo with my iPhone of a still from the back of my camera from the above video footage and e-mailed it to him there and then. It was pretty poor quality

It's a testament to Ian's birding prowess that from that photo he was able to say that he was pretty sure that it was indeed an American Golden Plover though he would ideally like to see the full video footage before making it official. It was indeed too late for him (or anyone else) to get down and after a few more minutes the bird shuffled into the back of the flock and I could no longer see it.

Here's the full video footage, in all it's grainy glory including the "heavy breathing" from me 
- well who wouldn't get excited at such a find?

Back home, once I'd uploaded the video I e-mailed Ian the location and a couple of minutes later he rang back to confirm what I was actually pretty confident of now that I'd had a chance to review the footage myself, namely that it was indeed a genuine American Golden Plover. I proceeded to put the word out to the county birders and to RBA and then went off to celebrate with my family though they were quite frankly disappointingly unmoved by my monstrous find.

The next morning the county birding great and good were (I imagine) assembled on the Meadow at first light to look for the bird. I myself, being for a short time the only birder in the county to have seen two AGP thought that I'd have a bit of a lie-in instead. After a while I got word from Badger that the plover flock was flying about constantly and not landing at all so that it was impossible to know whether the star bird was still there. This apparently went on for more than two hours and gradually work commitments or boredom meant that most of the people there drifted away leaving a few hardcore birders to watch the wheeling flock. Eventually at around 10:30 I got a call from the Wickster saying that the plovers had finally landed and that the American Golden Plover was still amongst them. A little while later I got another call, this time from Badger saying that now there were two AGP's present! I suggested to him that the other bird might be the Imposter from the other week and e-mailed him over a photo of that bird. He soon called back to say that I was right, it was the Imposter but that it had fooled quite a few people some of whom had even happily ticked it and left. Eventually apparently it got sorted out in the field and fortunately Badger was able to take some pretty good shots of both birds.
The Imposter - right colour, shame about the structure

Here's the real deal 

You can see how it's smaller and leggier compared to its european cousin

Plover Porn (c) Badger (top three) and Ian Lewington (bottom one)

The star bird was watched until after 2pm after which I think a bunch of people left. I went along for my usual last hour of light visit where I met up with some rather disappointed county birders who'd been there at first light but had had to go to work during the day when the bird was actually on show. Now they were back after work but despite the flock getting a thorough grilling there was no sign of it. Indeed it was not seen on the following day either and sadly a number of county birders still don't have it on their county lists. In a way though this keeps up the air of mystery and difficulty with this bird in the county - it's a proper bogey bird for some now.

So there you have it, all there is to know about American Golden Plovers on Port Meadow. I think that next it's time to find a Pacific Golden Plover, now that would be something!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Cornwall in Autumn

Once more I am doing an amalgamation of my various posts on Pendeen Birding from my recent week down in Cornwall.

Saturday 6th October: Davidstow, Hayle & Land's End
Well, finally I'm back in my beloved Cornwall. Earlier this year my VLW had come down sans moi with some of her family to the cottage for a week whilst I held the fort back home and looked after the children. This massive earning of brownie points resulted in me having dibs on a week down in the cottage myself whilst she did the family duties back home. After careful consideration (see previous posting) I decided on the second week in October for my visit and so here I am. In the run up to coming down I've been following the birding news here even more keenly than usual though it seems so far to have been a very quiet autumn. I can usually tell how good things are by how gripped off from afar I am and so far I have remained remarkably unperturbed back in Oxford. Sure, there have been a few Pecs & Buff-breasts, the Marazion Spotted Crakes would have been a Cornish tick for me, the Newquay Alpine Swift would have been very tickable though I wouldn't have seen the Elenora's Falcon even had I been here but there'd not been anything really crippling to give me pangs of grippage in Oxford. In fact in the week leading up to my visit I was starting to realise that it might end up being a very quiet time down there so mentally I've been reducing  my expectations somewhat. Nevertheless, anything could turn up and things suddenly picked up with the arrival of 7 Red-rumped Swallows at Marazion the day before my arrival (why not one day later?) so there is everything to play for.

I intended to set off from Oxford at my usual time of around 9am though last minute helping of my daughters with their physics and maths homework meant that I departed a little later than intended. There'd not been anything really exciting to catch my eye on the way down and with the Red-rumps having been reported still first thing this morning I was toying with the idea of headed straight down in order to try and catch up with them. However by late morning they were "no further sign" so I decided to stop of at Davidstow to pay my respects to the long-staying Buff-breasted Sandpiper there. I was half way along the A395 when David Parker called to say that a couple of Red-rumped Swallows had been seen at Swingates at Land's End. I hummed and harred about this but in the end decided to carry on as I was more than an hour from there still and twitching swallows is rather haphazard at the best of times.

I arrived at the airfield and decided, based on past experience, to start by seeing if anyone else had found the bird before embarking on the Davidstow curb-crawl of despair myself. It didn't take long to find a group of birders staked out in front of one of the many pools and sure enough there was the Sandpiper close by, looking completely unperturbed by its admirers. In this situation, with a relatively static bird at close quarters with good light behind me, I opted for the digiscoping option for my photographic efforts. They're never going to be as good as a proper SLR but they're not too bad. As well as the Sandpiper there was another small wader nearby though it was hunkered down with it's head tucked under its wing the whole time so it was very difficult to see what it was though I would have guessed Dunlin if pushed rather than Curlew Sandpiper (which had been reported with the Buff-breast for while now).

After spending a while with the lovely Sandpiper and after a flying visit to Crowdy Reservoir to see if I could luck in on a fly-over Crossbill in the plantation (no I couldn't), I headed back to the A30 and continued on my journey to the Penwith Peninsula, arriving mid afternoon. A quick stop-off at the Hayle estuary first found the Saltings to be remarkably devoid of waders with just a couple of Barwits and a single Redshank on show. There were the usual Wigeon, Teal, Gulls and Curlew around and someone who seemed to be taking a few people on a birding tour mentioned that he thought that he'd seen a Garganey there as well swimming in the river but to my eyes they were all Teal. 

After that I decided to head straight over to Land's End just on the off-chance that the Red-rumps were still about. I wasn't really holding out much hope but the only other birds of note on RBA were a couple of flocks of highly mobile Glossy Ibises which were being reported from various locations so I thought that I might as well check out Land's End as anywhere else. There I met up with Paul St. Pierre but there was very little of note there apart from an Emperor Dragonfly, a few Swallows, a Grey Heron and a Sparrowhawk. I also nipped into Treave Moor but again there was nothing of note apart from lots of Mipits.

I was starting to get tired now so I headed back to Penzance to buy some food and then made my way over to the cottage to get settled in. I wonder what this week will bring.

Sunday 7th October: Nanquidno & Sennen
I woke up annoyingly early this morning: my mind was clearly geared up for an early start and some dawn till dusk birding but the truth was that with nothing else having been reported yesterday evening there weren't any immediate birding targets for me to tear after. Instead I opted for a walk around Pendeen to start with to see if I could turn up anything decent. There were quite a few mipits in the fields and at one stage a flock of about 50 went up together but I couldn't find any wheatears. Down by the Old Count House and the Lighthouse all was quiet and with an easterly breeze blowing the sea looked quiet too. There was a crest (presumably gold) and a chiffy in my garden and four Ravens flew over cronking loudly.

The next task du jour was to inspect the moth trap which I'd left out last night. Now, regular readers of this blog will have noticed my increasing interest in moths over the time that I've been posting to it and during the summer I took the plunge and started trapping in my garden back in Oxford. Therefore for my trip down here this week I decided to bring my homemade "Heath-Robinson" Actinic trap with me to see what I could catch. The truth was that in Oxford, my urban garden isn't that great for moths and so far in the few months that I've been running it, I have a garden list of only a little over 100 and that's including micros which I've had to resort to in order to maintain my interest. I was therefore keenly looking forward to seeing what I could catch down here in a much more rural setting.  The result was (apart from a huge number of crane flies) a healthy 50 or so moths of 13 species with Lunary Underwing, Feathered Ranunculus, Black Rustic and Square-spot Rustic making up the bulk of the numbers.

 Autumnal Rustic
 Feathered Ranunculus
 Frosted Orange
Lunar Underwing
Pearly Underwing - this is a (reasonably common) migrant species

After this I had breakfast and then decided that I'd better head out somewhere to see what was about. I first stopped off at the Calartha Farm copse and at Pendeen church to see if anything was there but there was nothing of note. With nothing on RBA to tempt me I decided on my favourite valley, namely Nanquidno to see what was about. At the car park area I met up with Colin Moore who lives at the top of the valley- he'd already had a look around and not found anything noteworthy. Another regular visiting birder, Roger Carrington, had arrived at the same time and so the two of us went round together. Half way down Roger thought that he heard a Yellow-browed by the line of Sycamores though annoyingly it wouldn't call again. At this point John Chapple (see his blog here) and Kate (her blog here) turned up and we had a good natter. They'd found a couple of Firecrests and a Redstart further down by the last house. After a while we pressed on though despite careful looking we couldn't turn up anything special apart from a flock of half a dozen Siskins that were flying over occasionally. On the way back we met up with a few other birders who were just coming down. They'd stopped at the same line of Sycamores where they too had heard a Yellow-browed. Despite four or five of us all standing there staring at these tree it remained remarkably elusive giving only the briefest of views though it did at least call clearly once or twice. In the end it started to rain and I was getting cold, wet and hungry so I decided to call it a day and headed back to the car. 

I had been intending to head back home for lunch but when I got to the top of the valley I pulled into the large layby next to the airfield in order to catch up with any texts etc that I might have missed whilst in the phone blackout of the valley. It was clear that there were a number of Yellow-brows, Redstarts and Pied Flies fresh in today and Colin Moore had even found a Wryneck round towards Gurland Farm. One intriguing RBA message was of three Glossy Ibises and a Hooded Crow "in a field near Brew East of Sennen". I wasn't so interested in the Ibises - they would be a Cornish year tick only for me. The Hoodie on the other hand would be a Cornish life tick so I thought that this was worth investigating further. I called up Dave Parker to see if he knew anything. He'd not heard anything other than the RBA message but guessed that the "field" might be the one on the track up to Brew pool. This sounded as good a place to start as anywhere so off I headed, stopping off in Sennen to buy some lunch. I arrived at the track to find half a dozen or so birders, including Alex Mackechnie. The three Ibises were about 75 yards away in a field though partially obscured behind some vegetation so were only on view for some of the time. Apparently the Hoodie had been in the fields behind us on the other side of the road. After about 10 minutes the three Ibises suddenly took off and flew low right over our heads behind us and over the road, looking very much like there were going to land in the field just the other side of the road. 

 I managed precisely one digiscoped shot of the birds before they flew. 
Fortunately it was of at least record shot quality

At this point John Swann turned up and so did Phil and Hilary (more regular visitors who are now actually moving down permanently in March next year). We all trooped off to see if we could find the birds from the other side of the road but after a while I was getting hungry and headed back to the car for my sandwich. Phil & Hilary then turned up to say that the Ibises had been seen again as well as the crow and they were heading off to see if they could get closer so I revved up the Gnome-mobile and tagged along. We all re-convened over by Trevear Farm where apparently the Ibises were on view from the track leading up to Trevorian Farm though they soon moved on. Alex, Phil & Hiliary and I were more interested in the Hooded Crow and eventually it was tracked down in the middle of a field just to the south west of Trevear Farm. What's more it looked from what we could tell to be the genuine article rather than a hybrid so a nice Cornish tick for me. I watched it long enough to take a few record shots in the pouring rain before heading back to the car.

Strictly record shot only of the Hooded Crow

By now it was raining rather heavily and the wind was starting to get up so I decided to head home for a nice cup of tea & some cake. After that I did some work on identifying some of the more difficult moths from last night and then had a brief power nap. It had been a surprisingly productive day's birding with clearly some new stuff fresh in today. With these Easterlies due to continue for a few more days yet let's hope that some more good stuff is brought in.

Monday 8th October: Kenidjack, Cot & Church Cove

Once again I awoke earlier than I would have liked but this time to a fog-enveloped world. Now Pendeen is a real fog magnet and if anywhere is going to be fog-bound it's here. However a check on some local webcams soon revealed that actually this was more widespread than just the local area. Despite this, I decided  on a quick stroll down to the lighthouse to see what I could find but apart from the usual mipit flock and a couple of kestrels there wasn't anything of note apart from a rather bedraggled Fox Moth caterpillar. 

Fox Moth Caterpillar  

It then started to look like the fog might be lifting so after breakfast I decided to head over to Kenidjack to see what I could find. There I met up with a regular visiting birder called Lewis and we birded the valley together. There were quite a few more birds about than of late and there was plenty to look through though of course they were mostly the usual stuff. Down at the bottom by the donkey paddock we found a Redstart, a brief view of what might well have been a Pied Fly and a little way back up the valley, in the company of John Swann, we had good long views of a Yellow-browed Warbler working its way through a Sycamore tree. In the other valleys news was coming through of loads of Yellow-browed as well as a Wryneck and a Lapland and a Snow Bunting at PG. There must be getting on for a dozen Yellow-broweds on the Penwith peninsula at present.

At this point we met a bloke called Tim who'd been told by someone else of a White's thrush in Cot valley that had been found by one of the local Cot regulars. Without further ado we all piled into the Gnome-mobile (to minimise parking problems) and headed off to find out what the situation was. It turned out that Nigel Wheatley (if I've remembered correctly) had found the bird: it had flown over his head across the road and then low down off into the undergrowth so a single-observer sighting. By this time there must have been getting on for fifty birders all assembled there. In fact all the locals and visitors were probably there with the exception of Dave Parker who presumably was stuck at work. After a while a couple of locals went in to the nearest garden to have a look around but nothing was found and nothing flew out. People then started to spread out to look for it but Cot is such a jungle that it was a near impossible task. I later learnt that White's thrushes are masters at hiding and when they're motionless in a tree their markings render them almost perfectly camouflaged. I tagged along with John and Lewis and we started to search the surrounding fields but eventually we admitted defeat and I offered them a lift back to Kenidjack to their respective cars.

Some of the Assembled Twitchers for the White's Thrush

Whilst we'd been wandering around Cot word had come out on RBA of a Paddyfield Warbler over at Church Cove on the Lizard. After dropping off the others I had intended to go for it but by the time I neared Pendeen common sense and the lure of a nice cup of tea and some cake started to influence me so instead I headed for the cottage. My brother-in-law, David, was coming down this afternoon, it had only been reported once on RBA and it was an hour's drive away: all good reasons not to head off. I called David and found out that he was about an hour away so perhaps a quick nap was called for. Just as I put the phone down a second report came through on RBA and that was enough for all sense to go out the window and I got my gear together and headed for the car. I sent a quick text to David saying that I was probably going to be out and telling him how to get in the cottage in my absence and then off I went, arriving an hour later at Church Cove. 

Just as I was walking down the road towards the site I met up with John Foster and his two children (who'd grown a lot since I'd last seen them). He informed me of exactly where to go and that the bird was showing well and at regular intervals. Buoyed with this information off I trotted and I soon found the site with a couple of birders in attendence. True to John's description, the bird soon showed at a distance of some twenty yards where it was working its way through some bracken and ivy in a nice sheltered spot and showing nicely. It was paler than I would have expected but the long tail and dark area above the long supercilium were clearly visible. Phil and Hilary turned up and we all enjoyed good views of this great little bird at close quarters. After about an hour I decided that I ought to head back home to my house guest though I did stop off in Penzance to pick up some provisions and a nice celebratory bottle of champagne. After all it's not every day you see such a good bird so nicely and at such short range.

The Church Cove Paddyfield Warbler, taken with my super-zoom camera
 - never an easy task with a mobile warbler

Tuesday 9th October: Pendeen & Marazion

Once more I woke up earlier than I would have liked to a fog-bound world. After a cup of tea and a catch-up of yesterday's Cornish birding news on Dave Parker's site, I decided to do my morning rounds of Pendeen. Once outside I met up with Ian Kendall, a regular visitor to Cornwall who often come to check out Pendeen first thing in the morning. We chatted for a while before I decided to head up the road to check out Calartha copse and he decided to head south down the coast path. I gone about 50 yards up the road and was busily trying to photograph a Whinchat in the bracken when I heard Ian yelling my name out. When that happens you know that you need to run and this I did, arriving a breathless minute later where Ian was by the boggy pool about 75 yards down the coast path. It turned out that he'd found what he was pretty sure was an Olive-backed Pipit on the far side of the pool though I saw it just as it hopped down into the field behind the hedge. After a while of waiting we decided that Ian should head over to take a look which he did, duly putting up the bird which called loudly, flew low over my head and then off down the valley. Having now heard the call as well we were confident in the ID and so I put the word out to some of the locals as well as to RBA. After a while John Swann and then Dave Parker and Tony Mills arrived though we hadn't seen it again despite my having had a wander up to the fields above the coast path. We hung around by the pool for a while and then Ian had to get back and I decided that I was getting hungry so we left the others to it. I was of course elated at having got such a good bird even before breakfast and went back to the cottage on cloud nine to check up on whether David was up yet and to discuss our plans for the day.

I didn't get a photo of the pipit so here's the Whinchat instead

After some breakfast and with conditions looking rather foggy and nothing tempting on the pager, David and I decided that we'd try Cape Cornwall though when we got there it was so foggy that we immediately turned round and left again. When it's really foggy down the west coast I usually end up going over to Marazion and this is what we decided to do, parking along the beach front and then having a wander along the beach towards Marazion itself where we went into a café for a hot drink and a pasty. Whilst there I got a call from Ian saying that he'd gone back to Pendeen and had managed to re-find the pipit in the fields above the coast path a bit further down. I put out the word for him and David and I strolled back along the beach towards the car. before heading back home to the cottage.

Fifty Shades of Grey - Marazion was looking very atmospheric today

I noticed that they'd added a lot of new hardcore to the banks of the Red River where it flows out into the sea - it's a shame because I've always like the open mini-estuary feel of the river mouth

The St Michael's Mount amphibious vehicle was out in the sea this morning

Back at base we caught up with Ian and John Swann who'd both had good views of the pipit in various locations along the coast path and surrounding fields so David and I thought that we'd have a wander over to have a look for ourselves. There were about thirty birders in total, including Phil & Hilary, John Chapple and also Lee Evans (who'd come down especially for this bird) all wandering around the fields and clearly in "searching mode". This went on for quite some time and it was all starting to look a bit hopeless with such a large area to search and I was nattering away with John Chapple, just thankful that I'd already seen it, when Lee Evans stumbled across it, putting it up. I find that Lee always seems to be intensely driven when he hasn't seen a bird and will continue searching long after others have given up. Once he's seen it, he morphs into a much more relaxed persona, being very helpful at twitches and calling out directions etc.

There then followed a series of episodes of the bird going down in rough grass or bracken where it was unviewable, before being put up again until eventually it was tracked down to a piece of ground where it showed briefly but well at a range of about 30 yards for the assembled entourage. After that it flew off down into a more inaccessible area and the majority of the crowd, including myself, decided that we'd seen it as well as we were going to and headed back up the path towards the cars or in our case home. As we were leaving some of the locals, who were clearly more laid back about seeing this species, starting arriving to take a look including Mark Wallace and Martin Elliot.

Hunting the Olive-backed Pipit

Back at the cottage and with the weather now much improved, I was finally  able to check out my moth  trap from last night. It was mostly the same stuff as before with about 70 moths of at least 15 species (at the time of writing I've still to identify some of them). As I was sorting out the trap a large flock of mipits came over and I thought (though I'm not certain) that I heard the OBP in amongst them - not bad for my garden!

I had this lovely Angled Shades in amongst the moths today

Last night whilst setting up the moth trap I found this little creature out side. 
To me it looks like a Gecko but I didn't think that you got them in this country. 
Edit: John Swann has pointed out that it's a Palmate Newt

To round things off, as it had been another day with a new bird for me this meant that we were rewarded with another bottle of champagne. If this week continues in this form it could end up being a rather drunken (and expensive) one!

 OBP - certainly worth a bottle of champagne. Some video courtsey of John Chapple (c) - see his excellent blog

Wednesday 10th October: Kenidjack & Lizard

My mind has come to associate coming down to the cottage with getting up early in order to go birding: normally when I'm here with the family my only chance of birding is to get up before them all and to nip out. However, for some reason it seems to be carrying on this association even though I'm down here sans famille and free to bird all day if I want. Thus it was that for some annoying reason I woke up at around 4:30 this morning and struggled to do more than doze thereafter. This wasn't going to stop me going out and birding of course but I knew that at some stage I was probably going to have to schedule a nap.

Anyway, at around 8 a.m. I decided to go out and to do the local rounds. Outside the cottage I met up with Ian Kendall again, this time avec femme, though he'd little to report apart from a Goldcrest in the Old Count House garden. I wandered down to the lighthouse, heard the crest for myself, and on the way back managed to find a lovely male Wheater hanging out with the numerous pipits and linnets by the back entrance to the cottage. Up the road there were two more Goldcrests in the sallows on the track to Manor Farm though Calartha copse was birdless. As I was wandering up the road I met John Swann and a couple of other birders coming down in a car - they were going to see if the Olive-backed pipit was still around. Later the news went out that it was still about so they obviously found it. In fact there was a steady stream of birders coming and going all day for the pipit who were clearly neither locals nor long-stayers such as myself but day-twitchers. Interestingly, Martin Elliot later flushed a probable OBP up at Nanquidno so that's two of them now.

One of the numerous Pendeen Mipits

Back at the cottage, David (my brother-in-law) and I decided on a walk down to Kenidjack and over to Cape Cornwall, just for something a bit different. We parked half way down and I didn't bother trying to check all the bushes in detail (that would have been a bit tedious for David). Down at the paddock whilst David had a go messing about with my super-zoom camera, I spent about half an hour checking things out - the Redstart still and a few crests, at least one of which was a Firecrest. From news that was coming in on RBA it seems that everywhere down here the YB Warblers have moved out to be replaced by loads of Firecrests. Next we took the path over to Cape Cornwall before coming back down via Boscean. Nothing of particular note but it was a pleasant enough walk. As we were driving back up the road we met John Swann coming down - he told us of a male Redstart and a Firecrest in Tregeseal. As I wasn't familiar with this spot we stopped in to check it out. It turned out to be a lovely small copse of a couple of Sycamore, a confier and a few Holly trees by a stone bridge next to a stream. Very pretty and what's more within this small area we soon found the birds John had mentioned as well as a chiffy. We spent some time trying to photograph them though without much success but at least I got good views of the Firecrest. David is a good photographer with a proper DSLR though he tends to photograph people rather than wildlife and he found it hard to track the birds as they "moved about so much".

Cape Cornwall

The best I could come up with on the Tregeseal Redstart: 
at least you can see the lovely red tail well

On the way back home we stopped in for provisions at Boscaswell store. Whilst David did the shopping I checked out the copse and managed a Pied Flycatcher for my efforts. We had lunch back at the cottage and were just contemplating what to do when an Ortoland Bunting came in on the pager over on the Lizard near the Housel bay footpath (the Bufflehead pond area). It's always a tricky call when it's that far away and it's just a single report so I decided to wait on it for further news. Whilst David went off for a walk I had my nap to catch up with sleep. Later "no further sign" came through and I congratulated myself on a saved journey. Then "showing again" came up - I cursed roundly and we scrambled the Gnome-mobile. It was getting rather late by now and as we headed towards Helston the weather seemed suddenly to start closing in. By the time we were going down the Lizard there was thick fog and we knew that it was a lost cause but having come so far we'd thought that we'd at least have a wander round to stretch our legs. On arrival we met up with Tim (from the White's thrush fiasco a couple of days ago) who told us that he'd seen it (though some time ago) along with LGRE and showed us the large complex of stubble fields where it might be. Tim wandered off but David, myself and another birder who'd turned up thought that we'd have a walk through the various fields in a vain attempt to find it. We managed to flush a Skylark for our efforts but it was a hopeless task. Buntings are known for hunkering down and being approachable so we could easily have walked right past it in the gloom. After about an hour we admitted defeat and headed back home where David cooked a lovely meal ( he's a dab hand in the kitchen) and with no champagne birds to celebrate we had to be content with beer this evening. Looking back, had we gone on the first news we would have connected but then that's birding for you - if it was all predictable then it wouldn't be so fascinating.

Spot the bunting - a hopeless task

It was too wet to set up the moth trap tonight but I put on the "moth light" where the only moth foolish enough to be out in rather damp conditions was this chap which I think is migrant Dark Sword Grass (correct me if I'm wrong).

Thursday 11th October: Lizard & Pendeen

I managed to sleep much better last night and woke at a more reasonable time shortly after 7am. From the comfort of my bed I could hear the rain lashing down and knew that there was no point in hurrying out of the cottage. Instead I spent some time pottering around until shortly after 9 a.m. when the wretched Lizard Ortoland Bunting came up on the pager as present again. With the weather still looking very shaky for the morning here on the Penwith peninsula, another trip over to the Lizard seemed like a reasonable idea though this time David elected to pass. He was due to head off back home early afternoon anyway and he had to some PAT testing for the cottage (his one task in "payment" for the free holiday). I probably wasn't going to get back in time before he left so we said our goodbyes and I headed back on the familiar road towards the Lizard.

I arrived at around 10am to find it rather foggy and no one around at all. Before I steeled myself for yet more slogging around the numerous stubble fields I decided that a quick stroll over to the Red-backed Shrike spot would lift the spirits. No sooner had I got to the end of the footpath when up it popped not 15 yards from where I was standing. I slowly reached for my camera but before I could get it out of the case off the bird shot. I wasn't going to get better views than that so bouyed by my close encounter I headed back to the Stubble Fields of Despair to start tramping. There I met Phil & Hiliary and also the same birder from last night who was also back for more. It turned out that he was on his 400th bird and needed Ortoland still so he was keen to give it another go. A few other people joined us so we marshalled ourselves into a line and started systematically working our way across the various fields. After a while we met up with the guy who had refound the bird that morning - apparently on the western edge of the field complex along Penmenner Road though he was a bit vague about the details. After more field-bashing some of our party started to drift off and we more or less admitted defeat. A few off us went along the footpath to Pistil Meadow to look for a probable Tawny Pipit from yesterday but there was no luck. At the Lizard Point the others went off into the café but I chose to walk around the coast path to Housel Bay and then back up to the village where I'd parked. There I had something to eat and drink before steeling myself for one final look in some of the fields but of course it was still useless. On a second trip down to Pistil Meadow I happened to look out to sea where I spotted a Bonxie going by close in and then right behind it was a lovely Pom. skua. Back towards the Housel Bay footpath I met up with Dave Parker who'd just arrived for a Bunting search himself. By this time though I'd had enough and with news coming through of a RB Fly at Nanquidno I pointed the Gnome-mobile towards Penzance and headed off.

Pistil Meadow in the fog

After a brief stop-off for provisions I decided to head to Nanquidno to see if I could track down the Flycatcher but as I got to the ford I met up with Lewis who said that it hadn't been seen by anyone apart from the finder at 11am and that the wind (which was by now getting pretty strong) was blowing right down the valley and no one was seeing anything at all. I therefore turned the car around and headed back home for a spot of late lunch. From my window back in the cottage I could see the sea was cresting with white waves and what's more it was a north-westerly so it would be rude not to give the Watch a go for a while. I put on all the warm clothes I could find and headed off to the lighthouse where I passed a very enjoyable few hours in the company of half a dozen or so birders including LGRE. Between us we had 30+ Balearics, 10 or so Sooties, half a dozen Bonxies and 1 Arctic Skua in the session and Lee spotted a Puffin and a Sandwich Tern as well which no one else got on to. After a while it started getting cold and the wind seemed to be veering a bit more northerly so it was blowing right at us. Understandably I'd had enough at this point and headed back to the warmth of the cottage. That evening I did a spot of touching up of the decorating in the cottage - a never ending task in a location like this where the weather has a habit of sneaking in through the nooks and crannies.

In the absence of much in the way of photographs today, here are a couple of moths from the other night.

 Large Ranunculus
Small Wainscot

Friday 12th October: Pendeen, Sennen & Land's End
There's no denying that things have got quiet again. After the flurry of good birds that fortunately coincided with my arrival last Saturday, as the week has progressed there's been little of note around. Not that I was complaining in particular: I was pleased to have seen the good stuff earlier on, but it meant that it was harder to decide where to bird with no obvious targets to chase. Today when I looked out of the window first thing, there still seemed to be a good wind, just west of north-westerly so I naturally starting thinking of Pendeen again. I had some minor decorating chores to do first but once I'd done them I wandered down to the Watch to see what was about. Unfortunately, in that short time the wind had dropped significantly and I arrived to find a few birders who reported that hardly anything was going through. I put in a token half an hour during which time a Bonxie, 3 Common Scoter and a couple of Shearwaters was all that I could muster.

After that it was a question of deciding where to bird. I started with my local "patch" at Pendeen: Calartha copse held 3 Goldcrest and 1 Chiffy; the Boscaswell stores copse had the Pied Flycatcher still as well as 2 Goldcrest and 2 Chiffies and the churchyard had a single (normal) Coal Tit.

Pendeen Pied Fly

After that I decided that I didn't fancy yet more valley birding and those areas would be well covered by others anyway. Instead I elected to explore some of the areas I was less familiar with. I started off over towards Sennen with the footpath between Escalls Chapel and Trevorian Farm, walking over to Trevear Farm and back again. Plenty of Mipits, Skylarks, one Snipe and a Wheatear on the farm building were all I could muster.

Next over to Brew Pool, where there was no sign of the Glossy Ibis that had been reported earlier. I walked up to the pool and had a wander around but there was nothing of note. I picked up a sandwich in Sennen and then drove on to the Land's End area. A wander around Treave Moor found 1 Buzzard, 1 Sparrowhawk and a few Linnets. I did spot a small rusty-brown moth fluttering around which I wondered if it might be a migrant Rusty-dot Pearl but unfortunately it never settled.

Treave Moor Robin _ I took this because of the contrast between the 
lead grey sky and the brightness of the robin

At Land's End I wandered along the cycle track seeing only 1 Kestrel and a Dunnock for my troubles and I got a good soaking to boot in a real cloud-burst though thankfully it quickly subsided. Below the car park I found 3 Chough, and a handful of Chiffies. It was all very hard work for no rewards. By now the latest rain shower was starting to look more threatening so I headed back to the car and drove to the Little Apple Café in Trevescan, gaining its shelter just before the heavens opened once more with a proper thunderstorm. I enjoyed a hot chocolate, some cake and a chat with the proprietor inside whilst the rain rattled down on the roof. Eventually, it eased enough for me to run back to the car and drive back home.

 Land's End Wildlife

 I was back at the cottage, thinking about what to have for dinner when an RBA text came through reporting some Firecrests at Penberth and St. Levan. However, tacked onto the end of it was "a Stint sp. at Marazion at the mouth of the Red-River". I called Dave Parker who knew nothing about it. As it was close to getting dark I realised that I couldn't wait for him to check it out but instead would have to drive over so off I sped. We rendez-vous'd by the estuary but the only thing we could come up with was a 1w Common Gull by the river mouth and a couple of Barwits over by the Godolphin hotel. Oh well - you've got to check these things out. I went back home, did some more decorating chores and started packing for my departure tomorrow. It had been a day of little reward on the bird front though I'd enjoyed exploring some different areas in more detail.

Marazion sunset

Saturday 13th October: Pendeen & Hayle

I woke up (at a reasonable hour - thankfully my normal sleeping pattern has been restored over the last couple of days) and had to get on with packing and leaving as the cleaners were coming to prepare for some paying guests for next week. By a little after nine I was out of the cottage and wondering what places to stop off at on the way home. Viv Stratton had found a couple of Ring Ouzels at Buttermilk Hill yesterday so I was thinking of checking in there to see if they were still about. I didn't really have time to do the full Pendeen rounds but as I had some re-cycling to drop off by the store I thought that I'd at least check out the copse to see if my Pied Flycatcher was still about. There I met up with John Swann, a visiting birder from Manchester and also Viv Stratton and a lady photographer, all with a keen interest in the copse. It turned out that the visiting birder had found an "Irish" Coal Tit there yesterday - apparently they have yellowish cheeks and there'd been a few on Scilly in the last few days. We hung around a while and I managed to re-find the Flycatcher but there was no sign of the Tit. I thought back to the Coal Tit that I'd found in the churchyard the other day but I'd checked that carefully to see if it was a continental one and it had looked absolutely bog-standard to me. Viv mentioned that the Ouzels had gone from Buttermilk Hill so that at least saved me having to check up on them.

My Pendeen Pied Flycatcher posed well in the sunlight this morning

Next item on the journey home was a brief stop-off at Hayle where there were still remarkably few waders: I could only find a single Bar-tailed Godwit and a handful of Redshank. I checked my RBA text messages to see if there was anything to keep me in Cornwall a while longer: a Corncrake at Porthgwarra was no doubt un-twitchable and there was nothing else of note so I pointed the Gnome-mobile up the A30 and headed off.

Hayle Estuary Curlew

There'd been remarkably little of interest en route to tempt me and the only thing that I could come up with was a Richards Pipit at Budleigh Salterton in Devon which was fortunately just a little way off the M5 so wouldn't be too much of a detour. It was reported as being in a field of long grass near the mouth of the River Otter. Some quarter of an hour off the motorway I duly found the field with no sign of any large pipits. A few other birders turned up and we wandered along the coast path a little way but to no avail. After a while I admitted defeat and headed back to the car with "a nice walk" the best that I could salvage from my detour. The rest of my journey was uneventful and I arrived back to my VLW and our lovely children early evening, tired but content with what had been a most enjoyable week in my favourite part of the country.

Portrait of a Twitch
My brother-in-law David is not a birder at all. He's a keen photographer but is more interested in portraiture than wildlife. I was a bit worried that he might get bored when I dragged him off on some of my birding expeditions but as long as he had his camera with him there was always something for him to do. Below are some photos that he took of the Olive-backed Pipit twitch near the cottage at Pendeen. If you look carefully you'll spot John Chapple, myself, Phil & Hiliary, Gavin Haig and Lee Evans in amongst the crowd - most of them you can click to enlarge.

All (c) David Ryan

Once I'm back home I always like to reflect back on my Cornish trips, to savour once more all the highlights and to ponder whether I might have done anything differently for the low points.

The first observation is that Cornwall seems to be having a rather quiet autumn so far. Sure, there's been the usual autumn birds turning up but, to me at least, not in the usual numbers.Talking to some of the visiting birders who'd been down there for several weeks such as Lewis Thomson, he'd said that the previous week was very quiet. It seems therefore that I did happen to jam in on a brief purple patch lasting a few days though this actually kicked off the day before I arrived with the 7 Red-rumped Swallows which annoyingly didn't hang around for me. On the Saturday a total of 15 Glossy Ibis turned up with at least a few of them staying all week. On the Monday there was of course the White's Thrush and the Paddyfield Warbler, the latter staying for a while. Tuesday saw the arrival of the Olive-backed Pipit and a Great White Egret. Wednesday brought in an Ortoland Bunting and Thursday was the first of quite a few (mostly heard-only) Red-throated Pipit records. So all in all there was quite an influx of good birds during my week. There were also long-stayers which hung around such as the Davidstow Buff-breasted Sandpiper and the Housel Bay Red-backed Shrike. 

So, let's get down to some good old-fashioned lists 

Scarce & Rare Birds Seen
Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Glossy Ibis
Paddyfield Warbler *
Olive-backed Pipit *
Red-backed Shrike
Yellow-browed Warbler

Davidstow Buff-breasted Sandipiper

Supporing Cast
Common Redstart
Pied Flycatcher
Hooded Crow *
Sooty Shearwater
Balearic Shearwater
Pomarine Skua

* = Cornish tick

So all in all, not a huge list but I'm very pleased with my three shiny new Cornish ticks which pulls me comfortably clear of my pathetic Oxon list once more. Two of those birds (the Pipit and the Warbler) were new "champagne" birds for me - I think that I may have set a rather dangerous precedent there which could prove expensive in years to come! It was nice to get in a bit of sea watching and made me realise just how little I've done of it this year - in fact Arctic Skua was a year tick for me! I still have a love-hate relationship with sea-watching: I love doing it and gaining more experience all the time but I do still struggle with ID'ing some of these birds at great distance. After having spent a lot of time watching video's of skuas on youTube I do feel that I'm finally getting to grips with them but I still managed to mis-call some (admittedly rather distant) Kittiwakes as Terns before they came close enough for me to realise my mistake. So there's still plenty to learn.

Pendeen Pied Flycatcher

This time there was the added dimension of proper moth trapping. I had two sessions, one trapping 50 moths of 13 species and the second 70 moths of 16. These counts are far better than the paltry numbers I get in my urban Oxford garden so from that point of view it was a great success. Below is a list of the species trapped or seen with the first four being migrants:

Silver Y
Pearly Underwing
Dark Sword Grass
Rush Veneer
Lunar Underwing
Black Rustic
Feathered Ranunculus
Large Ranunculus
Setaceous Hebrew Character
Square-spot Rustic
Autumnal Rustic
Frosted Orange
Turnip Moth
Angled Shades
Large Yellow Underwing
Small Wainscot
Common Marbled Carpet
Buff Footman
Light Brown Apple Moth
Eudonia angustea
Celypha lacunana
Fox Moth (caterpillar)

Black Rustic

One additional aspect which I am starting to appreciate is getting to know the regular visitors to Cornwall. I know many of the local birders already and as always appreciated timely texts & calls from David Parker and John Swann but there are a number of people such as myself who come down frequently, often in the autumn whom I've had pleasure of birding with this time. These include Ian Kendall (who regularly does Pendeen & who found the OBP), Roger Carrington, Lewis Thomson and Phil & Hilary (though they're becoming "locals" in March next year).

Bird of the trip this time is a joint prize won by the wonderfully confiding Paddyfield Warbler and the Olive-backed Pipit on my home patch at Pendeen. Dip of the trip I think goes to the annoying Ortoland Bunting that eluded me despite hours of tramping around stubble fields.

Pendeen Olive-backed Pipit (c) B. Rankine -
this was taken towards the end of the week when most people had
 lost interest in the bird. Apparently it was sitting up beautifully
 on the gorse near the pool where it was originally found

So all in all a great success and I'm already thinking about booking a week next year at the cottage again.