Saturday, 21 January 2012

Oxon Space-Time Vortex

Just what is going on in Oxon? First the unseasonal grey phalarope at Farmoor, now it's a January Temminck's stint at Rushy Common and a common whitethroat at Cuddesdon. There is clearly some kind of time warp space vortex thingy going on here which is sucking up wintering birds from sunny Africa and dumping them in grey (but remarkably mild) Oxon.

I seem to go through fits and starts when it comes to twitching county birds that I don't need for my county list. Last year I was remarkably lazy about going for anything but this year I've already gone for a phalarope and a stint just in one week. Mind you, given that they are both in January that would make them Mega rares, if only that sort of thing counted on ones various lists. Now there's a thought: life-listing species by month - it could add a whole new dimension to listing.

Anyway, I manage to persuade my five year old son that he'd be happy sitting in the car playing with his Nintendo DS whilst I made a minor "detour" to Rushy Common for the Temminck's en route from Jericho to Summertown to do the weekly shop. Fortunately the handful of birders peering through the hedge just north of the Rushy Common car park gave me a clue as to where to look and it was all remarkably quick and easy. Mind you, I'm used to seeing Temminck's on Port Meadow where they show down to perhaps 10 or 20 yards, not the 100 yards distance of this bird - not the best of views.

Spot the stint ... (it's in there, honest!)
...any better?

It was quite a feat getting even this grotty digiscoped record shot, taken through a hedge, into what little light there was with the highly reflective water either side of it to mess up the metering. I cranked up the exposure three notches in the end to compensate.

Now if there is a space-time wormhole vortex between us and African (and let's face it, it's the only logical explanation) then let's hope that it brings us something really good that is indigenous to African rather than stuff that we might normally expect anyway just not at this time of year. Now wouldn't that be something!

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Farmoor Phalarope

An unseasonal grey phalarope was found yesterday at the end of the day at Farmoor by Phil Chapman. When it was reported as still present this morning I thought that I would go and pay my respects to this dainty wader. They are remarkably hard to photograph as they are forever moving around but with the trusty superzoom I managed a few shots in rather poor light and a surprisingly chilly wind in the pleasant company of Badger and the Paranoid Birder. The great northern diver was also still about which I'd not caught up with until today.

Some oversharpened grey phalarope shots (click to enlarge)

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Doing the Hampshire Mega Double

As I keep asserting, and despite recent evidence to the contrary from this blog, I'm not a great twitcher . However, on the back of what had been a rather tiring period of Christmas festivities and then some tiring Cornwall decorating, followed by some intensive work (yes I do occasionally do some) preparing for a meeting this week between my business partner and our main client, I decided that I needed a bit of a treat as a reward for all my efforts. What could be better than a long and tiring day down in Hampshire, I thought to myself! The avian carrot dangling in front of me was made up of two Mega's: a dark-eyed junco in the New Forest and also a Spanish sparrow nearby at Calshot. This twitch met all my twitching requirements, being within two hour's travel and being well established - the junco for a couple of weeks and the sparrow had apparently even been around long enough to breed a mongrel hybrid so was probably set up there for life! To top it all off I even agreed to pop into Ikea in Southampton to pick up some stuff that we still needed for the Cornwall cottage so I could even score some brownie points on the trip!

I didn't feel that a particularly early start was called for and set off at around 8:20 arriving at around 10 am at the Hawkhill Inclosure in the New Forest. I realised that I'd actually been there before a couple of years ago though that time I'd not actually wandered around at all but had merely stopped by the roadside for a tree pipit sighting. The main arena of action was a large clearing between two coniferous woods. The chief areas of focus in the clearing were two patches of fallen trees on which the bird would occasionally perch and so tactics consisted of waiting by one of them for the bird to show. If it showed at the other patch then there was a mad dash over to view it before it flew off. Whilst we were waiting there were plenty of crossbills zipping about to look at, a few woodlarks were knocking about, one flying off quite low over our heads and a flock of five redpolls were also an interesting diversion. Whilst there I also met a fellow Oxon birder (whose name I unfortunately don't know) and also Lee Evans who was in good spirits having seen the sparrow earlier on. The bird itself proved to be highly mobile and whilst I saw it on three occasions over the two hours that I was there, I struggled to take any decent photos of it. The best showing was when it was down on the deck for several minutes about 10 metres from where we were all standing though it was partially obscured most of the time even then as my photos will testify. It was nice to see this American vagrant on this side of the pond (I'd seen several in American when I was last over there) though the views were frustratingly brief.

The best I could come up with on the
photographic front for the junco!

..and my crossbill photos weren't much better

Next it was on to Calshot for the Spanish sparrow where I arrived at around 1pm. Whilst some birders had parked (safely) quite close to the action, I decided to park down in the village where there was ample parking which was free at this time of year. A few minute walk back up the road found a crowd of about fifty birders mostly lined up overlooking a patch of birdless lawn. It turned out that the target hadn't been seen in over an hour and people were starting to look rather disconsolate. I joined them and wondered whether I should have gone for the sparrow first. The area was rather hard to bird: whilst loud sparrow chirping sound could be heard from behind the houses there was no way they could be seen - it appeared that one had to wait for the sparrows to come out and hang about in the surrounding hedges instead. After a very quiet hour, a few sparrows started appearing and one got the feeling that things were moving a little more. Half an hour later and the call went up that someone had the bird in a dense tangle of vegetation at the far end of the lawn so we all hurried round there. The bird was so deeply buried in the bushes that even with someone describing where it was it took several minutes before I actually picked it out, it's very white cheeks giving it away. Fortunately the bird stayed put for about twenty minutes, preening away so everyone was able at least to see it through various scopes that were set up though the views were never very satisfactory. It was a bit like the Question of Sport "guess the sportsman" (I haven't watched this programme for years so don't know whether they still do this section) where they show tantalising glimpses of someone from which you must piece together who it is: one could see only bits of the bird at a time though never all of it, in all its glory. Whilst there I met fellow Oxon birder Jeremy Dexter for whom Wednesday is his regular day off for birding - he'd been mopping up all the local rarities in Hampshire as well. We chatted briefly and then once I'd got my fill of sparrow glimpses I headed off back to the car.

The scrum of birders all trying to pick out the
deeply-buried sparrow from the undergrowth

Some nice close-up video of the sparrow, shame it was so obscured.

I had been contemplating nipping in at the ring-billed gull at Gosport whilst I was in the neighbourhood but it was getting rather late so I set the Sat Nav app for Ikea and headed off for a spot of shopping. Fortunately I managed to get everything on my list before headed back up to Oxford, arriving home at around 6:30 pm, tired but pleased with a day out in the sunshine getting brief glimpses of a couple of megas.

Least readers of this blog feel too frustrated at my poor photographic attempts, here's what both birds actually looked like, courtesy of Jason "Badger" Coppock. There's also a rather nice video someone else took giving a feel for the twitch itself here

Here's what proper views look like, (c) Jason Coppock

Friday, 6 January 2012

Stormy December Cornwall

Firstly, Happy New Year to all my readers. Regular readers may already have figured out that whilst I'm down in Cornwall I do daily updates on my Pendeen Birding blog. When back, I compile all the updates into a single Gnome blog entry, which is presented below.

Tuesday 27th December
I was due back down to Cornwall again for a final decorating push before the cottage was to be inspected at the start of the New Year. Having survived Christmas with the various rellies I was looking forward to getting back to my beloved Penwith peninsula to clear my head in the fresh air and to catch up with some great Cornish birding.

As usual I had a look to see if there was anything interesting to stop in on en route but the best I could come up with was a Richardson's Canada goose of unknown origin in Somerset. There were also a few birds that I wanted to see in Cornwall itself, namely a surf scoter off Jubilee Pool and a ring-billed gull at Tolcarne beach. In the event I didn't set off from Oxford until 10am, later than I intended, so given the paucity of daylight I decided not to bother with the goose but instead to head straight to Cornwall. Despite the roads being a bit busy with traffic I made it from Oxford to Penzance in a record breaking 4 hours and that's without going unduly fast. I was just parking up by Jubilee Pool to have a crack at the surf scoter when an RBA text came through that the ring-billed gull had been seen at Tolcarne early afternoon so I decided to head down there instead. There, despite scouring all the gulls the best that I could come up with were a couple of adult Med. gulls and a couple of eider (one female and what I presumed was a first winter male) along with a curlew, an oystercatcher, a little egret and the usual gull suspects.

Digiscoped shot of one of the Tolcarne Med. gulls

With not much light left I couldn't hang around too long but instead headed back to Jubilee Pool where I passed the rest of the time until dark scouring the sea. The incoming breeze seemed to have brought in quite a few sea birds with at least 20 kittiwakes, a great skua, a few gannets and what was a possible adult Sabine's gull all out in the bay. On the sea itself viewing conditions were not at all easy with the choppy sea ensuring that the birds were only visibile for brief moments at a time but I managed to find a Slavonian grebe over towards Long Rock, at least four great nothern divers dotted around the bay and about twenty common scoter and the surf scoter (a brief view) off Jubilee Pool itself.

To round things off on the way to Pendeen I caught a glimpse of a barn owl in the headlights on the road to Newbridge. It has been nice to get back to some Cornish birding and I was looking forward to getting in some more before the rest of the family joined me in a couple of days.

Wednesday 28th December
Today I woke up rather early so decided to get on with my renovation tasks as soon as possible in order to give me more birding time with the limited amount of daylight available. Accordingly at around 9:30 I felt that I'd earned a decent break and so set off for Mounts Bay once more where I spent more time unsuccessfully looking for the ring-billed gull in the Tolcarne/Wherry area and also the surf scoter at Jubilee Pool. The scoter flock was rather mobile this morning thanks to a couple of gigs out on the much calmer sea. With the wind a strong westerly today, the Bay was rather sheltered and calm, certainly a lot flatter than yesterday's choppy conditions. In flight one was able to get a better idea of the large scoter numbers with the flock numbering perhaps about 60 birds. Despite spending a fair bit of time looking for the surfie I wasn't able to pick it out today and so didn't improve on my brief views from yesterday. There were at least five great northern divers around the bay today and someone else reported the Slav grebe again.

I also popped over to Marazion for a while on the strength of a text from Dave Parker informing me that the water pipit was still about on the beach. I must admit that I'm not that confident with separating water and rock pipit in winter plumage and spent some time photographing what subsequently turned out to be a rather grey rock pipit (thanks to Dave Parker for putting me straight on that).

This rock pipit allowed quite close approach
so I was able to get some shots off with the Canon superzoom.

After a while I'd had enough of searching through distant sea duck flocks and loafing gulls and headed back to base where I passed a productive few hours sanding and painting some old tables. Eventually as the light was starting to fade I felt that I needed another break and so decided to nip over to Sennen where yesterday a near-adult Iceland gull had been reported (I'm guessing by Martin Elliot) in the field opposite the Post Office. I wasn't really holding out too much hope but I thought that I would go and take a look anyway. I arrived to find a tractor ploughing in the field in question and all the gulls flying around all over the place. I decided to wait for them to settle and watched them as they swirled around. Some of them started to head off towards Sennen Cove and as they did so they flew quite low so that I was able to get a good look at them as they passed. Suddenly there was the Iceland gull, looking very obviously pale with striking white primaries and I could make out some brown feathers in the surrounding otherwise-grey wing which marked it out as not yet fully adult. I watched it as it flew towards the Cove and then decided to head over there to see if I could relocate it. Down by the harbour there were not many gulls around: a few were trying to loaf on the Cowloe though the very strong winds were making that rather hard. I watched the waves roaring into shore for a while and managed to pick out a great northern diver quite close in over towards the beach. It soon got too dark to see so I headed back home for something to eat and the prospect of some more work this evening.

This photo doesn't really do justice to the rather
stormy conditions in the Cove.

Thursday 29th December

The wind has been consistently westerly and rather strong for a couple of days now which has meant that the only relatively sheltered place is over on the Mounts Bay side of the peninsula. Therefore, for a third day running I made my way over there. Given that the rest of the family as well as some relatives were all descending on the cottage later this afternoon, I decided that I would head out more or less first thing and have a good birding session before returning to tidy up the cottage, do a bit more renovating and await the arrival of the various guests.

I started off once more at Jubilee Pool in the company of Linton Proctor, Paul St. Pierre and another local though despite our collective efforts we weren't able to find the surf scoter this morning. There were a couple of great northern divers in the bay, the large flock of common scoter as well as an unusual great crested grebe. Next it was over to Marazion for another look for the water pipit. There I met with Dave Parker, sporting a beard which I'd not seen on him before (perhaps his winter plumage?). He'd not seen the pipit that morning by the main road so I decided to walk over to Marazion to see if I could turn it up. Over behind the Godolphin hotel there were loads of pied wagtails, a few rock pipits, some loafing gulls, a flock of twenty odd turnstone, a few oystercatchers and a single bar-tailed godwit. On the way back, by the Red River mouth I found the water pipit. When you see the genuine article there is no doubt at all as to the ID which made me wonder why I'd struggled yesterday. The very white underparts with clean streaking were very striking as was the paler, more mid-brown unstreaked back colour and strong supercilium and moustachial stripe. I suppose it's the old birders adage: if you only think you've got an ID then you haven't. There's no substitute for seeing stuff for getting it straight in your mind and I feel much more confident about water pipits now.

After that it was back to Tolcarne beach where I met Linton again and also Tony Mills though he didn't stay long. Another local turned up who'd apparently seen a little auk or two in St. Ives bay that morning. We hung around for a while to see if the ring-billed gull would turn up though it never did. There were three Med. gulls (2 adults and a 2nd winter) and a couple of common gulls knocking about, one of which was sporting a nice ring around it's bill. Whilst I'm told the original sighting is no doubt sound, one can't help but wonder whether some of the subsequent reports might have been of this bird instead.

The "ring-billed" common gull...

..and some other Tolcarne birds, snapped on the
superzoom whilst waiting for the gull to turn up.
Unfortunately I didn't turn down the exposure enough to
compensate for shooting white birds so they're somewhat
burnt out in places.

A final stop off at Jubilee Pool failed to turn up the surfie, so it was off to Tesco's for some shopping and then back to base to get ready for the arrival of the guests. Once I'd got home of course the surf scoter was reported again as showing distantly - grrrr!

I don't know what birding opportunities I'll have from now on with the guests and family around - we'll have to wait and see.

Friday 30th December
Rather foul weather today with fog in Pendeen & rain for much of the day though the forecast strong winds didn't materialise. I only managed to snatch about twenty minutes birding today down at Jubilee Pool where once again I failed to see the surf scoter despite much calmer sea conditions. This bird is becoming a bit of an issue for me. I reckon I got the briefest of views of it the first day that I was down here but I've now subsequently spent so long not seeing it that I'm starting to doubt my original sighting and would really like a decent view of it. Once again not sure how much birding I'll be able to do tomorrow though I hope that I can snatch at least a brief session.

Here's a gratuitous rock pipit photo

Saturday 31st December

Another very misty and drizzly day today. We started off with some drama when we realised that we'd run out of heating oil for the cottage so we had to make a dash down to the local supplier at St. Just in order to buy some drums of oil to tide us over until they resumed deliveries in the New Year. We passed a very challenging hour or so trying to poor the oil from the cannisters into the tank in windy conditions without getting kerosene all over ourselves.

After some more cottage work in the morning, given the weather it was decided that the afternoon outing would be a shopping trip to Penzance for those who were interested. I dropped the shoppers off and after nipping in to pick up a travel cot for the cottage, with an hour and a half until I was due to pick them up again I made my way back to Jubilee Pool for yet another session there. I'm really starting to know this area quite well now: I know that the common scoter flock is generally right over to the right of the large black and red pole, that there's usually one female common scoter who hangs around on her own around there, that there are a couple of great northern divers dotted around the bay between the pole and the Mount and I'd more or less figured out from speaking to other birders that the surf scoter was generally on it's own in the distance over towards the Mount. Accordingly I spent most of my time scannning in the this area and after a moderate amount of time I managed to pick it out in the distance - not the best of views but it was good to get another sighting of it. I also managed to pick out an arctic skua which was chasing the gulls. The mist would periodically move in so that one could not see far enough for the surfie and when this happened I spent time looking at the birds along the shoreline: there were rock pipits, a few purple sandpipers, a dozen or so turnstones and an oystercatcher to keep me amused. Finally at around 4 pm the mist looked to have set in for the rest of the day so I made my was back to the rendezvous point to pick up the shoppers and to head off to Tescos.

Jubilee Pool birds, taken with the superzoom
with the ISO cranked right up

A couple of digiscoped purple sandpipers in the gloom

I'd like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a very Happy New Year and lots of great birding for 2012.

Sunday 1st January

As I got up before anyone else in the household today I went for a brief half hour session down at Pendeen this morning. The wind was from the south west so wrong for Pendeen but it was nice just to see what was going by. I almost immediately had a balearic shearwater go by but after that it was the usual auks, gannets, kittiwakes and fulmars as well as a porpoise just off the reef.

St. Ives black-headed gull

Later on in the day we went to St. Ives. While the rest of the party went for a wander around the lanes, I took Luke (our five year old son) over to the Island where I found a large mixed flock of birds feeding on what must have been a shoal of bait fish. There were about 100 large gulls with a bonxie snooping about in amongst them, 100's of auks floating on the sea and at least 3 balearic shearwaters skirting around the edges.

Trying to get a bit arty with this kittiwake shot taken off St. Ives Island

Monday 2nd & Tuesday 3rd January
As I mentioned in previous posts, I haven't had much time for birder in the last couple of days. I snatched a half hour session at Pendeen before the rest of the household got up on Tuesday. The wind was moderately strong but at least it was in the right direction and the highlight was a couple of balearic shearwaters going through, with the rest of the sightings made up of the usual suspects.

On Wednesday, after going to St. Erth for the recycling centre I had a brief 10 minute stop-off at the Hayle estuary causeway where from the comfort of my car I was able to sift through the gulls and ducks. There was nothing particularly unusual there but it's always nice to take a look and I took a few photos with the superzoom.

Hayle birds

Wednesday 4th January
The stormy weather yesterday was quite something. The cottage is very exposed close to the sea and took the full force of the wind and rain. This gave the weather proofing a good test and sadly some of it was found wanting with rain coming in in several places. It was good in a way that we were there to see this as it meant that we could try and work out solutions but it was still rather depressing to see our carefully decorated interior getting damp and soggy!

This morning was taken up with meetings with the builder (to sort out the leaks), our housekeeper and the letting agency. Whilst we were packing up and getting ready to go I got a few texts and calls from Dave Parker and John Swann, telling me that an Egyptian goose (presumably the Helston bird) had joined up with the goose flock at Drift reservoir. Apparently the bufflehead had also been there the previous day though it had gone back to Loe Pool today. Egyptian goose is a great rarity for Cornwall (it was a county tick for at least one seasoned birder there) so was causing a disproportionate amount of interest. I persuaded my long-suffering VLW to let me stop off there on the way home for a quick look and I managed to find it though it was with the flock on the hillside opposite the hide so it was a rather distant view.

A very distant record shot videograb of the Egyptian goose

After that it was off up the motorway on the long journey back to Oxfordshire which afforded me ample opportunity to reflect on this visit. I always enjoy visiting Cornwall but this time it had been rather tiring what with getting everything ready for the final inspection and coming on the back of a busy Christmas period. The birding had been rather low key with nothing too unusal for the time of year. In fact there had "just" been a bufflehead, a ring-billed gull, a ring-necked duck and a surf scoter in the county but Cornwall does of course have very high standards. Personally I managed four county ticks this time (water pipit, surf scoter, Iceland gull and Egyptian goose) which I was pretty pleased with. I think that the bird of the trip award has to go to the scoter just for the number of hours I put in trying to see it.