Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Welsh Grouse & Farmoor Magic

Astute readers may have noticed that we didn't go away for our usual family holiday this Easter - this is because both my daughters have impending exams and needed to revise. Instead my VLW is going down to Cornwall in a week or so's time with her siblings for a whole week leaving me to hold the fort. Of course this means that I have a few brownie points in hand which I can trade for a birding trip away. I had originally been thinking of heading all the way up to Scotland to do the Speyside thing but in the end decided that it was all a bit much to organise and that I'd be away too long. So instead I decided on the option of a few smaller trips away instead.

For the first of these tripettes I chose to head up to North Wales where I could see at least one of the classic Scottish birds without having to travel quite so far. I am of course referring to the enigmatic Black Grouse which has a stronghold on the moors between Llangollen and Wrexham. I'd discussed going up there with Ewan Urquhart who'd been intending to get up in the middle of the night in order to get there for first light but this seemed a little too much like hard work to me and in the end Ewan decided to head off to see the possible Atlas Flycatcher at Flamborough Head anyway so I made plans on my own. A bit of Googling came up with the RSPB guided walks at Coed Llandegla where one could apparently get reasonable views of lekking Black Grouse so I booked up for their evening walk on Friday.

As it was the Friday of a bank holiday weekend I really didn't fancy the conventional M42/M6 route and indeed the RAC website and the Radio 2 Traffic Report were already reporting long delays so I decided on the scenic route instead via Stourbridge and Bridgnorth, rejoining the A5 at Shrewsbury. Whilst this would take longer it wouldn't have the delays and indeed so it turned out to be as I set off just before 2pm and at a little after 5pm I arrived the Coed Llandegla visitor centre. The guided walk wasn't due to depart until 6:30 pm so I had some time to myself. After a cup of tea and a snack I decided on a quick walk around the surrounding woods where I soon found willow warblers, chiffchaffs, siskins, goldcrests and redpolls all at least heard if not always seen.

I wasn't sure what to expect for the guided walk but the leaders turned out to be "proper birders" and pretty sharp too. Within a few minutes of setting off they'd spotted a cracking female Goshawk which flew slowly over the path just ahead of us. As well as the same birds that I'd found myself earlier we also came across a couple of Tree Pipits in a more open area. The Forest is a proper working plantation with the trees periodically felled and replanted and part of the walk involved stopping off to show us various aspects of this work and how the owners of the forest were managing the plantation in a very wildlife-friendly manner. Apparently there are two ways of harvesting the crop: "clearfell" which involves felling all the trees in an area and then planting new trees and "partial fell" which involves taking out half the trees in a forest at the time. This latter method this allows more light down to the forest floor and when a line is re-planted this creates a three tier forest with high canopy, mid-height canopy and forest floor fauna which is all much more natural and good for wildlife. It even turns out that with partial fell the remaining trees get more light and space and so grow bigger so the actual yield per hectare of partial fell is as high as with clearfell. Certainly the forest seemed alive with birds unlike some really desolate forest plantations that I have visited. The managers worked with the RSPB so that there was some cleared areas in the forest and this has attracted Nightjars to the forest, as well as benefiting Tree Pipits.

After about three quarters of an hour we arrived at the hide overlooking the moor. We were told that in a clear patch of grass between the heather the Black Grouse lekked there every morning without fail but with some luck we might see one or two this evening. I must admit that I felt that they could have made this a bit clearer on their website: I'd come specifically for the grouse and had I known this I might have opted for a morning walk instead. Anyway, I needn't have worried as after setting up my scope in the hide, within about a minute I found a grouse skulking in the heather. It proved rather difficult to get the others onto it and after a short while it skulked down out of sight. It did pop up again for a bit and I let a few others see it through my scope before it flew off. Apart from that we got excellent views of a male Hen Harrier hunting over the heather at close quarters and his presence might have explained the lack of grouse in the area. After about half an hour we headed back to the Visitor Centre via a different route though little else of note was seen.

The view from the hide, overlooking the moor (taken at dusk)

By now the travelling and the lack of sleep (I'd not slept well the night before)  was starting to catch up and I was feeling distinctly tired. So after thanking our guides for the walk I headed the short distance along the road to the village of Llandegla where I'd booked in at a B & B for the night. This turned out to be quite "interesting". It was in a picturesque spot by a small river next to an old stone bridge but inside it was all rather chaotic: they were doing some renovation and repairs so there was quite a bit of junk around the place. I was to be sleeping in a "pod" which turned out to be a glorified wooden hut at the end of the garden which had a single dim light and an electric heater. For starters this heater turned out not to work so I had to be transferred to the other Pod. Bathroom and kitchen access was back in the main house and the kitchen was a complete mess with all the counter tops piled high with pots, pans and plates. The landlady explained that they couldn't actually offer breakfast as such at present but I was welcome to make some toast in the morning. This actually suited me as I was intending to get up and leave at first light anyway but as she showed me around it was clear that the landlady realised what a shambles it all was because the price kept coming down. It was officially £45 but soon came down to £40 and then £30 and by the time I came to writing out the cheque it was only £25. As I only wanted somewhere to crash I wasn't too bothered and was happy to pay whatever she wanted. The landlady said I was welcome to join them in the house (as it was too gloomy in the pod to do anything) and did I mind their dog. This turned out to be some enormous black hyperactive hound that was jumping up and down like a lunatic and was absolutely huge, one of the largest dogs I've ever seen. I said that actually I wasn't overly fond of dogs (especially gigantic mental ones such as hers though I didn't say that out loud) so she took it upstairs. I then sat in their lounge looking up bird sightings on RBA and planning the next day's birding whilst she, her husband and a couple of friends sat in the conservatory. After a while she said that she was going to bring the dog down as he wasn't happy upstairs after all but that she would keep it in the conservatory. The dog accordingly came bounding down stairs and ran into the conservatory where apparently (I couldn't see any of this, only hear it) it skidded and crashed paws-first into the groin of their male friend who doubled over in pain. Whilst the landlady's husband was in fits of laughter the two women were more concerned as the male friend limped off to the bathroom. He returned a short while later to report that there was only a bit of bleeding to his manhood and that he would be alright in a little while. And they wonder why I don't like large dogs!

I didn't sleep that brilliantly in my pod but decided to get up at 4:30 anyway. My plan was to go to World's End on the moors to try to get some views of the lekking grouse. I'd originally been intending on spending the morning there looking for pied flycatchers, wood warblers and redstarts in the plantation on the moors but after the previous night's research I thought that I would have a try for a Short-toed Lark that had been seen at Anglesey for the last few days (though it hadn't been reported yesterday). This would involve more driving and would eventually mean that I would have a longer trip back home but if you don't try for these things you don't get to see them so despite already feeling rather tired I settled on this plan. First stop therefore was the wonderfully named World's End to look for lekking grouse.

It was light but the sun hadn't actually risen yet as I made my way up onto the moors. I'd only been driving for a few minutes when I came across a car parked by the side of the road and there not thirty yards away were eight lekking male Black Grouse. I couldn't believe how close they were to the roadside, especially given how distant the view had been yesterday on the RSPB walk so I parked up carefully and watched them from the car. I'd been strongly warned that as long as one stayed in the car, the grouse would be fine but on no account was I to get out of the car as they'd all flush immediately. At this time of year in the breeding season on no account should one be walking on the moor anyway. Their bubbling calls and the great habitat was all very atmospheric and it was a magical experience. The light wasn't that great given how early it still was and the sun hadn't yet risen but I took a number of photos and some video.

 Lekking Black Grouse

Some video footage taken with my Canon SX30 IS super-zoom

After a while I'd had my fill and with the journey to Anglesey ahead of me I decided to head off, spotting a couple of Red-legged Partridges on my way off the moor. Normally the A5 to Anglesey is a tortuously slow road but at 6am in the morning there was no other traffic and I was able to go at a reasonable speed so I arrived at Anglesey at Rhosneigr at around 7:30 a.m. This turned out to be some sand dunes and a small river estuary right by the sea with an MOD airfield just inland of it. The directions to the bird had been rather vague and despite some searching and asking on the internet the previous night I hadn't managed to get any further details. I wandered around to where I thought it was and looked around. It was all very pretty and interesting scenery. There were lots of Wheatears about everywhere, a few Ringed Plover, Oystercatchers, a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers and Shelduck on the estuary. There were also a number of larks about though they were all Skylarks. After a while of fruitless searching a couple of birders came by who turned out to be the two who'd found and reported the Short-toed Lark for the last few days. It turned out I was in the wrong spot so they directed me further on though they did say that they hadn't seen it today and had only possibly seen it yesterday so it wasn't looking too great. I found the spot which was an area of short grass just before the dunes proper began but despite spending some time there looking around there was no sign of the bird. There were loads more Wheatears and and I occupied myself by taking a few snaps but in the end I had to admit defeat and made my way back to the car. I gave my VLW a call to update her on when I expected to be back and set off on the long journey home.

The estuary was rather pretty

...and with no Short-toed Larks to photograph I had to be content with 
the plethora of very smart Wheatears

As I was rather tired I thought that I'd take it fairly easy and would stop off at Llangollen (a traditional stopping-off point on family trips to this part of the country) for a hot drink and a snack. I'd just pulled into the car park when I got a call from Barry Batchelor back in Oxon who'd just found a Red-rumped Swallow at Farmoor! I explained that I couldn't really put the news out and that he should call Dai John who'd know what to do. This changed things: there was now no time for dawdling so I immediately cancelled my refreshment stop and got back onto the road. It's amazing how the dangling carrot of a rare bird can banish all tiredness and I made good time on the way back home. There was news on the radio traffic reports of a major incident on the M40 just after my turn-off at junction 9 but fortunately either they'd cleared it up or the traffic queue hadn't yet propagated up to the junction so I was able to get to my exit without any problems. I pulled over at that point in a layby to find out what the latest news was. A quick call to Ian Lewington ascertained that he was at Farmoor but the bird hadn't been seen for the last 40 minutes. After a couple more calls (to my VLW to see if she wanted me to pick up any shopping en route and to Lee Evans who'd tried to call me whilst I'd been driving, no doubt wanting an update) and with no news of the swallow I headed for home. After a quick bite to eat I decided that I needed a power nap to start clawing back all that missed sleep.

Later that afternoon, back in the bosom of my family, I got a call from Steve Goddard, a local birder who lives at Wolvercote just north of my patch at Port Meadow. I'd recently given him my mobile number in case he came across anything decent on the Meadow. It was a good thing that I'd done this because he was at Farmoor and he'd re-found the Red-rumped Swallow! Quickly I gave Ian Lewington a call to let him know and then texted Jason "Badger" Coppock who sent out a text to all the hardcore county birders. There then followed 15 rather tense minutes of negotiation with the family who thought it was a bit "off" for me to head back out to twitch some bird so soon after having been away for a whole day. I was particularly getting grief from Daughter Number 1 about it all. In the end she hinted that she'd be more amenable to my going out if I might look favourably on her recent request for a raise in her pocket money. The sly thing! Anyway, I said that I would have to discuss it with my VLW but that I was sure that something could be worked out. So after a 15 minute delay I was finally out the door and racing off to Farmoor. I'd wisely decided to leave my birding gear in the car this morning for just this contingency and so gained back a few valuable minutes.

At Farmoor, county birders were all converging on the car park. I ran up the embankment and along to group of birders only to be told that it wasn't showing and was last seen about ten minutes ago. Thoughts were now going through my head about the fifteen minutes it had taken to get out of the door at home and whether this might have cost me my tick! We started to spread out to look for the bird, chatting as we did so. It turned out that several other birds were also there on borrowed brownie points and we were all fretting about how long it might take to find the bird and how much trouble we'd be in when we finally got home. Fortunately after a short while a shout went up and was quickly passed along the causeway and we all converged at the south east corner of F1 where the bird was showing well, flitting really low over the water with the other hirundines. It was interesting how much it stood out on jizz alone: with broader wings and a much slower "heavier" flight it was quite easy to pick out. Interestingly, the pinkish rump didn't stand out nearly as much as I thought that it would. We watched it for a little while and then people started to peel off: Badger to twitch the Dotterel at Balscote which had miraculously re-appeared as soon as he'd come back into the country and the "borrowed-time" birders such as myself, to minimise the brownie point loss and to start making up for our unexpected departure. Back home I reflected on what had been an interesting though very tiring couple of days with some nice birds seen and culminating in a real county Mega, the last one having been a full fifteen years ago.

I didn't even try to photograph the Swallow so once again I've 
used these stunning shots courtesy of Nic Hallam (c)

So the amazing run of good Oxon county birds continues. I'm particularly chuffed to get this bird as twitching a swallow is hard at the best of times and it only seemed to come to the reservoir when the weather deteriorated: once things brightened up it would either be much higher up or off over the fields somewhere so all in all a hard bird to get. Also of course, I've now caught up with my Cornish total, something which I said would never happen. Before I get too excited I should mention that Badger is muttering darkly about standardising the county lists so dodgy birds such as Barnacle Goose and Ruddy Shelduck will be removed so I may yet get a couple of Oxon armchair unticks! Nevertheless it's been a great run of Oxon birds which had rekindled my enthusiasm for county birding which had been rather dwindling of late.

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