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!