Sunday, 29 April 2012

Farmoor Grebes & Newbridge Storks

Readers of this blog from out of county may consider me to be a rather infrequent blogger as this offering isn't updated that regularly. However, the truth is that I am a dedicated Patch Worker and update my Port Meadow Birding blog on a near-daily basis. I've been dutifully visiting the Meadow each day recently despite the terrible rainy and windy weather and, loathe as I am to admit it, the truth is that it was starting to get me down. The spring passage with the floods nicely topped up should be a time of rejoicing, of looking forward with keen anticipation to each visit to see what's dropped in that day. However, despite the floods being almost lake-like in their hugeness the bald truth is that the birding has been pretty slow this last week with virtually no waders taking advantage of all the water. It wasn't until I paid an impromptu visit to Farmoor on Saturday that I realised just how much the lack of birds had been doing my head in. I'd dutifully done my chores that day: picking up a daughter from a sleep-over, doing the family weekly food shop and then taking some junk down to the dump. As a reward I negotiated with my VLW that I might have a visit to Farmoor in order to get a bit of a walk and so it was that at about 2:30 pm I turned up at the concrete bowl.

The first thing that struck me once I was up by the reservoir was just how many hirundines there were. They were everywhere and the poor weather had pushed the insects down very low so that one could get great views of them hawking low over the water. There were loads of swifts around too which is interesting because I've not had a single one yet on the Meadow. I took great delight in watching them all at such close quarters.

One of the reasons for visiting Farmoor had been to pay my respects to the Black-necked Grebes that were there. On Friday a total of nine of these birds had accumulated at the reservoir and five of them had stayed on the next day. I hadn't realised that the birds were feeding quite so close in. They were often no more than a few metres from the bank and one had crippling views of these delightful birds in full summer plumage, certainly the best views that I've ever had of this species. I spent a little time taking some shots with the super-zoom though light conditions were pretty poor.

The Black-necked Grebes

After that I took a stroll down the causeway in the company of Peter Law. Regular readers may know that I like to wrestle with tricky ID issues and there were a couple of Arctic Terns in amongst the Commons to get to grips with. In such circumstances I always bring to mind what Ian Lewington told me: if you only think you've got an Arctic Tern then you haven't, they're that obvious when you actually have one that there's no doubt. Indeed they were really striking when you actually saw them: whilst their back, mantle and wing coverts were a uniform grey, their flight feathers were very "clean" and unsullied and had such a lovely translucent quality to them that they looked almost silvery. The Common's on the other hand had a much dirtier look to them and they were starting to develop the dark wedge on the outer edge of the primaries. When they came close one could also make out the differences in the bill lengths and the thin dark line along the trailing edge of the underside of the primaries which is of course narrow and well-defined with the Arctic but broader and more diffuse for the Commons.

 Arctic Tern with the thin underwing band...
 ...And Common Tern with the thicker more diffuse band

There shots are clearly far too good to have been taken
by myself and are courtesy of  (c) Nic Hallam

As I walked back along the causeway I grilled the wagtails, finding quite a few Whites and a handful of Yellows. There was even a Wheatear working it's way along the causeway ahead of me. Back at the car I realised that I'd really enjoyed my Farmoor visit in stark contrast to my recent Meadow trips. There'd actually been some birds to look at, they'd been showing well at close quarters and there been something interesting to learn about ID issues. Apart from perhaps a new tick one couldn't really ask for much more out of a birding trip.

After I got back home that afternoon, the news broke that the six White Storks that had been seen a few days earlier had been re-found, this time near the Standlake/Newbridge area. As I already have this species on my county list (thanks to a five minute bird on the Meadow last year) I wasn't too fussed about this and wasn't going to press my VLW for another trip that same day. The next morning four of the birds were still there and I received regular updates throughout the morning from the other county birders who went to see them. Come mid afternoon and my VLW and daughter no. 2 both wanted to go shopping in town but wanted a lift in because of the continued rain. I suggested that I take Luke (our five year old) off for a walk as he'd not been out much the whole weekend so after we dropped off the shoppers, Luke & I headed off in the Gnome-mobile towards Newbridge to see if we could find the Storks. 

I decided to go along the Thames footpath to find the birds rather than trying to see them from the Standlake/Pit 60 side as one would have a clearer view of the other fields if they moved. We were just setting off along the path when I met an actual fan of this blog. A very nice chap called Martyn from Milton Keynes recognised me from my new hat and said how much he enjoyed the blog and that it had even inspired him to take a birding trip down to Cornwall. I'm never sure how many people actually read my ramblings as I don't seem to have many Followers compared to some other blogs so it was very nice to have some positive feedback. Anyway, apparently the Storks were still there so Luke and I made the 10 minute amble to the third field where we could see one birder trying to digiscope something. We arrived to be told that the birds had been actively drying their wings and that they looked like they could leave pretty soon. Wasting no time I rattled off a few super-zoom shots and sure enough within a few minutes first one and then the other three took off and flew rather low right over our heads before disappearing off to the south west. They were flying rather low so I wouldn't be altogether surprised if they're still in the general area. 

 Drying out...
 ...Take off...
 ...Heading off into the distance.

I was pleased to have arrived just in time and Luke was pleased that we didn't have to hang around for ages whilst I photographed the birds so both happy, we turned round and headed back the way we'd come. On the way back we stopped to admire four families of greylags with goslings, I spotted a Common Tern flying along the river and also heard my first Whitethroat of the year.

Oxon's incredible run of good birds seems to be continuing what with the Grebes and now the Storks. It's interesting to see how many of the more seasoned county birders still needed the Stork for their county lists but I expect that sightings of these birds will become more common in the same way that Spoonbills, Cattle Egrets, Glossy Ibises and Great White Egrets have. One can't help but wonder what's going to turn up next as we move into May, historically the most productive month for turning up Scarce in the county (see my analysis here). Finally, spare a thought for poor old Badger, stuck on the warm and no-doubt dry island of Lesbos whilst all the hot birding action is going on here. I'm hoping that the long-staying Dotterel might actually linger long enough for him to get it on his return.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Balscote Dotterel

I don't know what's happened to Oxon, but all of a sudden it's on a run of good county birds. First and most exciting was the Black-winged Stilt of course, then the Pied Flycatcher which was a blocker for many and now to have another good bird so quickly after that was unusual to say the least. I'm referring of course to a lovely Dotterel that turned up at Balscote near Banbury. Mid morning I got the text from poor old gripped-off Badger who is away somewhere exotic at the moment and yet still had to pass on the text to other county birders. Unfortunately, as it was a weekend I was tied up with family stuff with some house guests with us for the whole day. At least the guests kept us rather busy so I didn't have time to dwell on what I was missing too much. The bird was regularly being reported throughout the day and when our guests finally left at 7 p.m. I negotiated an evening pass from my VLW and sped off towards Banbury in the Gnome-mobile, arriving at the appropriate metal gate by a field some half an hour later. After the rain showers that afternoon it was a lovely evening with a nice sunset and all in all very peaceful. Luckily the golden plover flock was still there, looking very settled and a quick scan through them soon turned up the Dotterel. It was moulting into summer plumage so not in it's full summer colours though very nice to see nonetheless. I spent about half an hour watching it, whilst listening to a Yellowhammer singing away close by accompanied by the distant "cronk" of ravens.

 Here is my customary dodgy digiscoped video

Earlier in the day Ian Lewington had informed me that he originally found a Dotterel in 1985 in the county but no one else was able to see it. It wasn't until May 2004 that Roger Wyatt found one near White Horse Hill when many of the county birders managed to unblock it. In April 2008 one turned up just out of the county at Bury Down in Berkshire which I saw and on departure it would have flown into the county though I don't know if anyone saw this. So Dotterel is a pretty scarce bird for the county though because of the 2004 bird it will only be a blocker for the more junior county birders such as myself. Excitingly this now puts my Oxon county list just one behind Cornwall. Can it catch up? Amazingly after such a good run of county birds it's now starting to look possible.

I leave you with this lovely Yellowhammer which was singing away close to the Dotterel gate.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Pied Flycatcher

I've been reading about Pied Flycatchers on some of the Devon birding blogs: Wild Wings and Wanderings and Not Quite Scilly to be specific. It's interesting to see how blasé they are about this species, sauntering down to see it mainly because it was nice and cute etc. Well, it's a different story up here in Oxfordshire I can tell you. Whilst Pied Fly is probably reported just about annually, they're usually in some private location or someone's garden and are always completely untwitchable. In fact last year one turned up in a county birder's garden in Headington to give a lucky few who've been birding the county for many many years a long over-due tick for this species - that's how hard they are to see. Whilst I am a relative newcomer to the county birding scene I was fully aware of their rarity status so when I was out and about with the family on Saturday and I got a text from Badger saying that there was a Pied Flycatcher at Farmoor there was no small amount of gnashing of teeth on my part. My VLW and our younger daughter had gone to do a spot of shopping at Bicester Village and I'd offered to take Luke (our five year old) for a walk up the hills at Quainton in Bucks to look for ring ouzels whilst they shopped. There was no chance of me getting to Farmoor at all so I took it on the chin and did my best not to think about it whilst I fruitlessly scoured the hills. We finally got home from the shopping trip at around 6pm and a I sent a tentative text to Badger about the bird to find that it was amazingly still on show. I negotiated a one hour pass from my VLW and sped off towards Farmoor, managing to get there in 15 minutes instead of the usual 20. I parked up at Lower Whitley Farm and hot-footed it over to the Zig Zag where I met Nic Hallam, in his van as ever, staring out at the gulls where he was pleased to report at least a dozen little gulls and some common terns that had gone through. I asked about the Pied Flycatcher only to discover that he hadn't bothered to go the necessary fifty yards from where he was parked and see it - perhaps he didn't want to have to get out of his van! Of course, as the top county lister he already had Pied Fly so it wasn't such a big deal for him. Anyway, I nipped over to the Zig Zag and a quick call to Badger homed me in on the area to look. After a short while and with the help of a couple of other (unknown) birders who were also there, we managed to see it in a large green hawthorn bush. As I had only very limited time I didn't bother to try and photograph it and after a few minutes of watching it I had to head back home in order to be back within my allotted one hour time. A shame that I had to tick and run but it was great to see such a beautiful bird (a very smart male) in the county. Amazingly that's my second new county tick in three days. I'd start to wonder whether I might catch up with my Cornwall list total again but despite these new additions I'm still a couple behind so it's still not very likely.

Continuing my increasingly lazy approach to blog photography, if I can't manage to photograph something myself I just get someone else's photo or video instead. Paul Wren took this great piece of video which shows the bird fly catching from the comfort of it's perch. County birders might very well also want to see Badger's very funny clip of the Wickster running for the bird, though if you don't know Tom or appreciate the rarity value of an Oxon Pied Fly then the video will be lost on you (as I found out when I showed it to the rest of my family).

Farmoor Pied Flycatcher (c) Paul Wren.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Pit 60 Black-winged Stilt

It's been a long time coming: a decent Oxon bird and a county tick. But at last something has turned up and I got to see it too!

There had been a typical spring influx of black-winged stilts in the country with one at Chew Valley Lakes and one at Tacumshin. As they don't usually stay very long I'd said to Badger on Tuesday that I was fully expecting the Chew bird to stop off on my patch of Port Meadow on its way back home. Whilst I said this partly in jest, I did have a funny feeling about it all and I wasn't entirely joking. The distinctively marked and therefore easily recognisable Chew bird turned up at Radipole yesterday and then at Abbotsbury today so it clearly hadn't picked up on my psychic vibes but blow me if Antony Collieu didn't go and find one on his patch at Pit 60 at Standlake today. I got a text from Badger of a possible stilt at Pit 60 at around 11:50 and within 10 minutes I was on my way. Funnily enough I wasn't very confident about it all as I drove along - I mean how could a stilt only be a "probable"? Also, I'd not got a confirming text from Jason who'd set off well before me so I was starting to get worried that he was having to hunt around for it, though it later turned out that in his haste he'd left his mobile in his car (again!). I half ran down the length of Shifford Lane and made my way to the North hide though this turned out to be locked. I was just heading on to the East hide when I bumped into Ian Smith who'd seen the bird and who had a key to the hide. He opened it up and low and behold there was the stilt! It was on the far shore and into the sun so not great from a photographic point of view but I wasn't complaining! I spent some time there doing some digiscoping with various locals turning up all the while. After a while I decided that I needed to get back to do some work so I made the journey home, basking in the warm fuzzy feeling of a new county tick.

Some rather crappy digiscoped record shots...

..and some equally crappy digiscoped video footage (c) Gnome

Here's a much better photo taken later on by Peter Barker
when it moved closer to the East hide (c) P. Barker

This bird was a real blocker for the younger (in birding terms) generation of county birders so it was great to have one turn up - usually the inland counties really struggle to attract birds like this. I can't help wondering whether this might be the Tacumshin bird (last seen on Tuesday) on it's way back to the continent and stopping in for a re-fuel. Shame it wasn't quite actually on my patch but it wasn't too far off.